Vladimir Jurowski must have had a sixth sense about this programme beginning as it did with Debussy’s Prelude Des Pas sur la neige (“Foosteps in the Snow”) and ending with the sound of sleigh bells ushering in the wonderworld that is Mahler’s 4th Symphony.
Colin Matthews’ orchestrations of Debussy’s Three Preludes do what all orchestrations of solo piano pieces hope to do: they momentarily take us away from and even forget the originals. They are, mind you, a gift to the keen eared arranger and Matthews tweaks every exotic sonority from every part of the spectrum – the soprano saxophone, plaintive and expressive and a little weird in the snowy landscape; the almost toneless rumble of contrabass clarinet plumbing the depths of La cathédrale engloutie, mysterious, majestic, and awash with orchestral refractions of light (much more imaginative than Stokowski’s arrangement); and the splashy Feux d’artifice whose fizzling out (cue muted brass) really did leave ghostly impressions on the retina.
Word colour is everything in Britten’s fantastical Les Illuminations – so more’s the pity that Christine Schäfer’s soup of plummy vowels did so little for the onamatopoeic French of Rimbaud’s poetry. The voice in this piece needs to trumpet the text with brilliantine consonance. If the violas can do so in the opening fanfare, so can the singer. “I alone hold the key to this savage parade”, she insists, but Schäfer kept her secrets pretty much hidden in the opaqueness of the delivery. Despite the best efforts of the London Philharmonic strings these weird and wonderful settings failed to register their verbal dexterity on all of us out there in the twilight.
I believe it was Michael Tilson Thomas who first struck upon the highly theatrical idea of having his soprano make her entrance at the great “heaven’s gate” climax of the slow movement of Mahler’s 4th Symphony. Jurowski had Schäfer do so here, though he might have stressed to her the importance of stillness in the closing measure of the adagio. Jurowski attended that with a chamber-like luminosity perfectly “in scale” with the neo-classical inflection of the rest of the piece. The LPO were quick of reflex to his light and articulate approach, bigger rubatos transformed into delicate turns and tantalising hesitations, bucolic clarinets raucous and unrestrained with “bells up” like seasoned jazzers, and detail everywhere in high relief like a pop-up picture book. Too bad the singer was again no match for her surroundings.