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Seen and Heard Concert Review

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 Piano Concerto.

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 for it.

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.

Colin Clarke



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