Seen and Heard Concert
Mozart & Mahler,
Angela Hewitt (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Mark Elder,
Royal Festival Hall, March 9th, 2005 (CC)
Mahler Six often, deservedly, stands on its own in a programme.
An exhausting emotional journey, it comes in at some 1 hour and
23 minutes (at least it did on Wednesday night). So why the Mozart?
Maybe the idea was to shed new light on both composers - it is
the traditional time for Spring cleaning, after all. For the Mozart,
Elder chose an intriguing stage layout, more akin to a theatre
pit than the RFH. Wind and horns to the conductor’s right,
strings (from left clockwise) violin 1, cellos, violas, violin
2, with double basses behind the firsts (maybe to bring tuning
into order). Articulation in the orchestral exposition was distinctly
of the early-music camp, vibrato at a minimum. All of which was
tailor-made to Hewitt’s pearly, clean articulation and her
frugal pedal usage. More than all of this, though, the result
of this freshness was an intimate rapport between soloist and
orchestra that enabled them, as one, to bring out the darker shades
in the development.
In keeping with this approach, the second movement (Andante) was
decidedly brisk. Perhaps as a result, Hewitt was not as interior
in expression as I had expected (and hoped). To Hewitt and Elder’s
credit, the more explosive passages were given their due without
being overblown. And the finale was bouncy and not too slow (the
tendency is to take it under-tempo to create maximum contrast
with the Presto coda). A few (surprising) miscalculations from
Hewitt hardly detracted from a performance with much to delight.
And yet there was the niggling impression was that we had heard
a procession of ‘nice’, beautifully-pointed moments
that did not add up to the masterwork that is the Seventeenth
Elder opted for antiphonal violins for the Mahler Six (basses
remaining behind the firsts). A couple of points to note: in keeping
with Mahler’s own performances the Andante came before the
Scherzo; and all three hammer-blows in the finale were present
and correct. To call this ‘authentic’ Mahler is perhaps
to use a term too laden with the semantic weight of earlier centuries.
Let’s just call it musicologically thorough.
‘Thorough’ could certainly apply,
too, to the preparation for this concert. Mahler symphonies are
not quite the regular concert items they were during the Mahler
boom, so I assume it was not my imagination that everyone in the
orchestra was on their toes, eyes glistening with excitement.
The first movement revealed much. The relentless tramp of the
opening had steadfast intent; the raised bells of clarinets showed
adherence to Mahler’s minutiae; and the sense of onward
momentum coupled with real structural grasp revealed the hand
of a mature interpreter at the helm. Of course there are caveats.
The LPO did not display the sumptuous tonal depth of some, the
famous (and vital) major-minor shift over what amounts to the
work’s Hauptrhythmus was barely audible the first time round
(much better in the exposition repeat) and sudden juxtapositions
of tempo were not laid completely bare. Maybe the cowbells (placed
near the exit, sounding nice and random in their peals) made up
Following this with the (here flowing) Andante is to have balm
instead of renewed assault. The cor anglais was marvellously plaintive
(Sue Bohling), but when it came to the horn solos it was impossible
to tell whether what we were hearing was vibrato or nerves. The
climaxes avoided the angst-ridden; seemingly in sympathy, the
ensuing Scherzo really was not that daemonic, seeming much happier
in the playful accents of the Trio.
If there was a star of the evening it was the tuba player, Lee
Tsarmaklis, whose solos at the beginning of the finale were a
real wonder. Perfect slurs, articulation and phrasing. Elder laid
bare Mahler’s scoring in this last movement, leaving us
to become aware anew at Mahler’s astonishing ear for sonority.
More, he brought out Mahler the obsessive, encouraging the horns
to play with abandon while still delineating the structure. The
whole movement seemed like a breathing organism, and we the audience
could follow its inhalations and exhalations with ease. And, oh
yes, that hammer. Huge. And times three.
The story of the hammer blows and the retraction of the third
is so well known as to not necessitate repetition. Perhaps this
really is authenticism at its truest, after all it turned out
Mahler couldn’t really retract the third anyway. On a purely
musical level the third blow does indeed make satisfying sense,
both emotionally and structurally climactic, leaving the (magnificent)
trombones to lead the music to its leaden close.
A fascinating and stimulating Mahler 6, then, and another testimony
to Mark Elder’s imposing musicality.