London Philharmonic Orchestra / Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Adagio from Mahler's 10th Symphony served as an upbeat (or should that be downbeat) kind of Liebestod or "love-death" before the "supreme ecstasy" of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde – Act II.

In a typically provocative piece of programming from the London Philharmonic's Vladimir Jurowski, Mahler's starkest final utterance served as an indicator of the path music was to take following the harmonic indeterminacy of Wagner's "Tristan chord". This was music seemingly taking its lead from the final act of Wagner's opera. Love and death entwined.

And perhaps because the musicological message was so particular, Jurowski's Mahler took on a strangely analytical, dispassionate tone, more fragile, more tentative than it generally sounds, violas so pale at the start, violins tensely seeking enlightenment in altissimo. It's horribly exposed music, of course, and felt so on this occasion – though the blade-like first trumpet bisecting the central cri de coeur was pretty sensational, like Melot's sword making its fateful thrust into Tristan at the close of what followed.

And so Wagner's "holy twilight" descended in all its tremulous headiness, a far more secure-sounding LPO enfolding us in the drama. The moment when the lovers first come together was properly reckless in tone and tempo, Jurowski and his singers pushing everything to convey a breathless abandon. Orchestral colours were furtive and illicit, with bassoons and bass clarinet sounding almost erotic for once.

Vocally, the women had it. The wonderful Sarah Connolly seems to ripen vocally with every appearance, and her anxious Brangane was ennobled by a lofty resignation, her unheeded warnings from the tower sounding like siren songs from the next world. Anja Kampe's Isolde was more than ready for the "supreme ecstasy" of this night of love. Her bright, resilient sound opened to it, every phrase primed and impatient with desire, her climactic melismas fantastically exciting.

Robert Dean Smith's rather "proper" Tristan was more of a Walther von Stolzing, the voice not craggy or heroic enough, the phrasings failing to find length and amplitude. And what a shame, too, that Laszlo Polgar's King Marke was so compromised by a chesty cold.

But what a piece. Even one act – and especially this act – sends you reeling, 143 years after the ink dried – if it ever did – on the manuscript.