Vladimir Jurowski, Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, led the Berliner Philharmoniker in a kaleidoscopic program that sparkled with the colors of the unfamiliar.
The event, transmitted live in the Digital Concert Hall, opened with Stravinsky's revisioning of the Bach Chorale variations on "Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her," written in 1956.
The work is scored without violins and cellos, so Jurowski had the female members of the chorus sit in the chairs left and right of the conducting podium. The men were arranged behind the ensemble stage right, which made for a powerful motion of sound, a canonic debate, as they interacted with the female voices across the stage during the canon in inversion at the 9th in the final variation. The chorus sang while seated and used an early music sound that was mostly non-vibrato. They produced a consistently clever and engaging sonority.
Jurowski conducts with minimal motions. He projects a relaxed confidence that helped create a warm sound during a piece with the intellectual acrobatics of both Bach and Stravinsky intertwined.
The first half ended with Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles.
Jurowski imagined a soundworld that is slower than often played, but where ricocheted rhythms and echoed entrances accumulated in impact as the work progressed to through the "Rex Tremendae." The texture of the "Libera Me" was perfectly balanced with the four choral soloists blending with the four muted horns. The parlando choral part was given submerged in the background like a refracted summation of echos and ricochets.
After intermission we heard Das klagende Lied, the massive early work of Gustav Mahler, given in its three-movement format as presented in the 1997 Gustav Mahler Edition. During intermission, Chorus Master extraordinaire Simon Halsey explained that significant work was done to rethink vocal allocations in this sprawling early work that Halsey described as "fabulously impractical."
The changes were noticeable, and sometimes surprising, but they helped to create a convincing sound. Halsey should make these eloquent and carefully considered alternatives available in an amended performing edition.
A list of memorable passages in this performance would need to include the nightingale interlude in the first movement sung with sweet sound and piercing clarity by soprano Christine Schäfer. It would also include the fabulous boy-sopranos in both the second and third movements, and the richly overplayed quality of off-stage music as it began to mix with sounds from the orchestra during the third movement.
From the standpoint of production, I would have liked to see more of Jurowski during the Mahler. From a visual standpoint we often got lost within the shifting ensembles and soloists and missed the extremely varied left-hand gestures and eye-cues that make Jurowski's specific impact on music easier to understand.
This performance of Das klagende Lied is something of which to be proud. It will be its own exclamation point in the Mahler cycle that will be completed next season by the Berliner Philharmoniker.