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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.