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Haydn & Mahler: Moray Welsh, cello, London Symphony Orchestra, James DePreist, conductor, Barbican, 28 April, 2005 (TJH)


Haydn: Cello Concerto in C major, Hob VIIb: No 1
Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C# minor


“A new beginning demands a new technique,” said Mahler of his Fifth Symphony, and indeed it was something of a watershed in Mahler’s development. Eschewing the gentle spirituality that warmed the earlier symphonies, the Fifth is a far more concentrated work than its predecessors, complex in its counterpoint, virtuosic in its instrumental writing, but thematically closer to Earth than the heavens. At the same time, it is perhaps the least personal of all Mahler’s symphonies, with only the famous Adagietto affording any sort of window into Mahler’s world, filled as it was with daydreams of the lovely Alma Schindler. If the Funeral March that opens the work is Mahler’s least convincing contribution to that particular genre, the buoyant Rondo-Finale is amongst his most optimistic creations: it makes sense, then, that the most successful performances of the symphony are those that aim squarely towards the joyous chorale of its final bars.


The American conductor James DePreist – making his London Symphony Orchestra debut at the ripe old age of 68 – took just this route, and in so doing pulled off a thoroughly enjoyable account of an occasionally troublesome work. Although his reading was not what you might call authentically Mahlerian, lacking as it did the Viennese swagger underlying the best Mahler performances, it was hard not to be carried away by the infectious energy that grew steadily over 70 minutes to the manically thunderous conclusion. Though DePreist never quite managed to whip the LSO into top shape, they had clearly been well-rehearsed, and he pulled a great number of details out of a score he had troubled to memorise for the occasion. Timothy Jones’ horn was the acrobatic star of the long Scherzo third movement, but he was matched throughout by equally impressive contributions from the whole brass section; while in the exquisite Adagietto, it was the LSO’s cellos that carried the real emotional weight, as they had done in the more reflective moments of the vehement second movement.

If there were a few things that kept this from being a truly first-class performance – some climaxes lacked sufficient preparation, for instance, while the dynamic level never really dropped below a sturdy mezzo-forte – there were countless moments that induced a smile, particularly in the extremely well-managed Scherzo. Though it might not have plumbed any psychological depths or offered new insight into the human condition, it was still jolly good fun, and sometimes that’s what really counts.


Rather less fun was the account of Haydn’s C major Cello Concerto that had opened the concert, featuring the LSO’s co-principal cellist Moray Welsh in the solo role. Whatever inspiration informed the Mahler performance must have been found some time during the interval, because this was about as dull and uninvolving a run-through as could be imagined. Taking an unvarying trudge through the relatively long first movement, DePreist kept the LSO subdued throughout in a misguided effort to give Welsh greater authority. All he achieved was to expose Welsh’s highly variable intonation, which Welsh tried to cover up with inappropriate and unidiomatic levels of vibrato. Just as well this was at the front end of the concert or else all smiles may well have been expunged from the Barbican audience’s faces. As it was, it was merely an unappetising starter to a thoroughly delightful main course – and thus forgivable.


Tristan Jakob-Hoff




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)