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S & H Concert Review

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No.3 in D minor; Birgit Remmert (contralto); London Philharmonic Orchestra, Ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir, Tiffin Boys Choir; Andrew Litton (conductor); RFH, 16th December, 2003 (AR)


Whilst international concert halls are awash with performances of Mahler symphonies, very few orchestras have a distinctive ‘Mahler sound’. Like the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra can be said to have this rare attribute. Just as the two orchestras have a very similar, deliberately rugged and raucous approach to the playing of Shostakovich symphonies, so their playing of Mahler displays similar rough-grained textures ideally suited to the dark psyche of his scores.

This performance of Mahler’s Symphony No.3 in D minor, conducted by Andrew Litton, perfectly illustrated how well the London Philharmonic Orchestra has assimilated the true ‘Mahler sound’ – the full range of contrasting emotions are expressed by the various sections of the orchestra, for example shrill, biting woodwind and acidic string passages, and where called for, quite brutal percussion playing.

Pan awakes: Summer marches forward was taken at a measured pace making this mammoth movement often sound fragmented in the quieter ‘primeval beginnings’ passages. There may have been some loss tension yet the playing was gripping and muscular, with the woodwind having a cutting, shrill edge, whilst the solo trombone had a mellow melancholic sound. In the explosive martial marching sections, the percussion, brass and woodwind combined to produce the right sense of threatening brute force, playing with all the vulgar gusto of a military band, just as Mahler intended.

Litton was in his element in What the flowers in the meadows tell me, perfectly pacing this chamber-scored minuet with a delicate grace, coaxing the violins to play with a luminous lilt. The conductor also teased out the overtly cute, kitsch elements without falling into vulgarity or sentimentality.

What the cuckoo tells me can often sound laboured and is frequently dragged out by many conductors but here Litton conjured up a sense of a fluid organic unfolding. While the off-stage post-horn solo had the right note of vulnerability required, it still sounded far too close for what Mahler called for - "as from the far distance". The most magical moments were the closing passages where the orchestra suddenly exploded in a torrent of glistening and shuddering sounds.

What Man tells me was taken at a very broad and solemn pace but never dragged, with contralto Birgit Remmert’s rich, velvety voice having the perfect, appropriately dark timbre and gravitas to carry Nietzsche’s melancholic ‘O Mensch’ text. In What the angels tell me, the acutely embarrassing bimm-bamm (the bell-ringing accompaniment to the three-part women’s choir) the Tiffin Boys Choir sounded mercifully recessed and had little impact. However, the Ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir sang with the appropriate joyous fervour.

The most moving point of the evening was the conducting and playing of What love tells me. Here Mahler asks this slow movement and finale to be played: "Slow, peaceful, with feeling" and this is exactly what was delivered.

The conductor excelled himself and elevated his players to new heights and emotional depths. Unlike most conductors, Litton plays down the heart-on-sleeve emotions by making his orchestra play with an internalised, melting reserve. The opening strings were consciously held back but still sounded extraordinarily intense: one rarely hears very softly played strings possessed of such weight and emotion.

The closing passages were a rainbow of shimmering sensations radiating warmth, light and life, with the two timpanists and brass delivering a monumental intensity to this glowing conclusion. The LPO demonstrated throughout the evening the ‘authentic Mahler sound’ in all its primeval poignancy and emotional intensity. It was a measure of the audience’s appreciation that the orchestra received the most thunderous ovation of the evening, with special plaudits for the solo trombonist.

Alex Russell


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