Works from the late periods of Mozart and Mahler respectively were juxtaposed this evening to create an effect perhaps more surprising than anticipated. While Mozart’s final piano concerto features three movements all in major keys and Mahler’s “constellation of songs” meditates on mortality, there is more in common between these two works than first meets the eye (or ear).

Stuart Skelton © Guðmundur Ingólfsson
Stuart Skelton
© Guðmundur Ingólfsson

Vladimir Jurowski led the London Philharmonic Orchestra alongside Dame Mitsuko Uchida in a performance of the Piano Concerto no. 27 in B flat major that highlighted the more pensive, melancholy aspects of the work. In spite of the sprightly themes permeating it, minor keys hints add occasional but significant tinges of darkness. Uchida’s poised and measured playing complemented Jurowski’s careful control of dynamics, resulting in a strong and idiomatic performance. The second movement featured delightfully intimate moments with the flute alone accompanying the piano, highlighting the unique textural blend of the piece. The final movement showcased more florid lines in the piano, which Uchida delivered masterfully. The thematic integration of the work was also made manifest by the consistency of the performance; not once did a theme feel “tiring” in spite of the manifold repetitions and developments it underwent. This achievement of cohesive structural unity augured well for the Mahler that followed.

With a stage packed with musicians, the setup for Das Lied von der Erde belies the chamberlike quality of the music. Small groups of instruments are playing together far more often that tutti orchestral forces, and the effect is palpable. Originally planning to call the work Das Lied vom Jammer der Erde (The Song of the Sorrows of Earth), Mahler revised the title before publishing it, but the jammer remained at the forefront throughout Jurowski’s performance. The symphony’s opening “drinking song” opened with a brilliant orchestral flourish, complemented by Stuart Skelton’s jubilant and febrile singing. Woodwinds shone, especially in this movement, the incessant trills piercing through the orchestral texture.

As the movements progressed through odes to autumn, youth, and beauty, the orchestra adapted well to the volatile nature of the music to vacillate from lilting and wistful melodies to loud and brash proclamations. Dame Sarah Connolly displayed immaculate attention to detail in phrasing and enunciation in the second movement, such that anyone following along with the text got a sense of the importance of every single word’s meaning. Skelton’s ebullient countenance drove home the lightheartedness of the third movement. Nonetheless, Jurowski’s careful restraint proved to be partially bathetic at times. In spite of a very marked change in texture and dynamics in the middle of the fourth movement (Von der Schönheit, or Of Beauty), the tutti orchestral forces did not seem to click into place as they ought to have. A noticeable difference was certainly obtained in the sheer difference of playing forces, but the splendour of the orchestral outburst could have been further accentuated at that moment to contrast with much of the preceding music.

Skelton blazed forth exultantly in the “drunken” fifth song, convincingly exalting the joy to be had in drinking as expressed in the text. Der Abschied, in spite of coming last, is often referred to as the centerpiece of Das Lied von der Erde, owing not only to its length of nearly half an hour but also its connection with the preceding movements, indeed, its preparation as the main movement of the symphony. But the continuity seemed somewhat askew with the preceding privileging of jammer throughout the first five movements. In other words, the seriousness of the final movement did not seem markedly different from the music preceding it as a result of the darker interpretation of the preceding music. This was offset by Connolly’s superbly nuanced performance alongside delicate flute and cor anglais solos revolving around simple grupetto and turn figurations. Chamberlike textures reigned supreme throughout this movement, and the final words (“Ewig… ewig…”) gave the performance a resolute close.

The stars of the evening were clearly Skelton and Connolly, who lifted the performance to a new level and brought out the inner pathos of what Leonard Bernstein called Mahler’s “greatest symphony”. 

***11