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Seen and Heard Festival Report


Edinburgh Festival 2005 at the Usher Hall:  Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, 26 August, and the opening Bamberg Symphony Orchestra concert, 29 August, Usher Hall, Edinburgh (JP)



It is very interesting staying at Pollocks Hall in Edinburgh surrounded by some of the performers you have already seen or will later see later. You can have breakfast one day with a young cellist from the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, overhear the conversation of ballet dancers the next and on another morning share a table with a violinist from the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. From this I learned how their stage manager had died en route to Scotland whilst transporting their instruments. Even more revealing however, was to discover something about the current state of classical music in Germany where few employment opportunities beckon for talented young musicians because of cuts in finance. The Bamberg Symphony with ony 114 players has been spared, whilst illustrious counterparts like the Munich Philharmonic have lost 10 or more from their ranks. The Bamberg Symphony were in residency at the Edinburgh International Festival for a series of five concerts in six days.


The GMJO however were only there for one night of their summer tour between concerts in Graz and Lucerne. They brought with them a mixture of their two tour programmes consisting of music by Richard Strauss, Mahler and Bruckner. The concert (26 August) opened with Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel (1894-95) which like many other Strauss tone poems deals with an outsider able to influence those around him for good or evil. When Strauss’s first opera Guntram was produced in Weimar in 1894, it was a critical failure and this resulted in Strauss’s thoughts about Till Eulenspiegel:The Opera becoming abandoned in favour of this much shorter work. ‘Eulenspiegel’ literally translates as ‘Owl Mirror’ and possibly refers to a proverb ‘Man sees his own faults as little as … an owl recognises his ugliness in … a mirror.’ The legendary character Till is a comic anti-hero whio spends his time mostly deflating the pomposity of others.


The work itself is an extended Rondo in which a pair of repeating themes is contrasted against a series of episodes depicting Till’s various adventures. The Till of legend, lived to a great age and died peacefully in bed but here there is no such happy ending here - Strauss’s prankster is hanged for a particularly blasphemous sermon. It is a rich orchestral palette with complex rhythms and abrupt shifts between one group of instruments and another. There is a grand climax as a roll of drums announces the gallows; an E flat clarinet squeals Till’s last moments before a repeat of the opening theme in the strings, reveals that Till’s spirit lives on and that he has played his ultimate trick by triumphing over death.


In truth, the work feels rather like the trailer to the main feature film with individual events passing from one to the next rather too quickly. However this is no reflection on the technical excellence of the massed ranks of the young GMJO who gave a spirited and exuberant performance under Ingo Metzmacher, soon to take over from Kent Nagano at the Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin. The Mahler offering in the programme were seven Lieder from Das Knaben Wunderhorn sung by the German baritone Matthias Goerne. Each song has its own sound allied to the individuality of its orchestration;there are military ones (Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, Der Schildwache Nachtlied, Revelge, Der Tamboursg’sell), two lighter and slightly ironic ones (Lob des hohen Verstandes and Fischpredigt) and the spiritual Urlicht (which was also later built into Mahler’s Second Symphony).


I always find Matthias Goerne’s constant movement on the concert platform somewhat distracting and also find that it does not help to dramatise what he is singing. Tragedy, loss, sombre eeriness were lacking from the march-like military songs but the gentler ones found the soloist at much greater ease both physically and vocally, with Urlicht perhaps the best communicated of the set of seven. The best accompaniment came with Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen with its juxtaposition from lost love to war played out between the GMJO well-schooled wind ensemble and the gently refined strings.


After the interval I had my second encounter with Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony within a very short time. I moaned in some writing elsewhere about the inadequacies of printed programme notes at the BBC Proms and this situation repeated itself in Edinburgh. We read rightly how the ‘repeated note’ at the start of the Scherzo ‘seems not to have been lost on Mahler, who began his own … Sixth Symphony in similar fashion’. But that is as far as it went in informing the audience of what it was about to hear. If classical symphony concerts are to attract new audiences they need to say more about things to listen out for. We may read how ‘The main theme (of the opening movement) … is tinged with minor-mode inflections that give the impression that the music is beginning not so much in the home key of A major as on the brink of D minor’ - but new concert goers may need some help over what this means. An attempt to broaden the appeal and understanding of classical music (and not just talk to the cognoscenti) needs to be made in my opinion. I have no formal music education (you can tell that can’t you?) but I can remember a ‘theme’ or, to put it more crudely, ‘a tune’! So while we are informed that Bruckner ‘revered’ Wagner, we are not told to listen for the Leitmotif of Isolde’s Liebestod called out by the brass throughout the Finale. Hans Redlich, the celebrated Austrian musicologist of the last century, for instance, was one of the earliest to remark on the ‘echo’ of the Rhinedaughters’ scene from Götterdämmerung in the Sixth Symphony Scherzo but the Edinburgh programme notes told no-one to look out for that! Earlier still, we were pointed towards Leonard Bernstein’s ‘lifting’ of the opening of the Adagio for ‘There’s A Time For Us’ in his West Side Story. (I understand that debate rages about how little Bruckner Bernstein performed. He apparently disliked Bruckner’s music - but obviously there were bits of it he did like. There is one live recording of the Sixth with the New York Philharmonic [Mahler’s old orchestra] but this seems to be the only other symphony he chose to perform other than the Ninth which he recorded twice.)


It was the fervent brass playing of the GMJO that was naturally brought to the fore in a compellingly fresh account of a score such as can only be given by an orchestra generally new to this (or any other) Symphony. Ingo Metzmacher seemed totally at ease with this ultimately triumphant music, conducting a performance which had an interesting (almost surprising given the composer) Austrian/German Schwung to it.


The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra is an outstanding group of musicians from a tiny medieval German town. For their opening concert (29 August) Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was paired with György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto. This was my first experience of the violin piece ‘the definitive score’ of which, as a programme note interestingly told us, was finished in 1992 and then revised the next year’ – my italics! I was stunned, however as an open-minded critic willing to hear anything new when I overheard a couple discussing the music at the end and commenting ‘Now they have finished tuning up maybe they’ll start the concerto!’


It is this tuning, or rather de-tuning, of the solo violin, as well as other instruments in the small chamber orchestra, that gives the music its parallel dimension quality, at least to ears accustomed to nineteenth century instrumental music.  Into this mix come ocarinas, slide whistles and recorder, plus the violinist playing nearly everything near the bridge - which must have turned the heads of every stray dog in the vicinity towards the Usher Hall. Apart from the opening of the second movement there is no recognisable melody and even there this is used as nothing more than a reflected memory of times past. Christian Tetzlaff played the difficult solos with stunning virtuosity, employing with staggering ease the exaggerated percussive accents and very dry string textures required by this abstract work.


Regrettably, the effect that Ligeti had on the audience numbers was considerable because the concert hall was again far from full (the GMJO concert also had not ‘sold out’). With the ever-popular Fifth Symphony being played it should have ensured an auditorium filled to capacity, particularly during a Festival series. It seems that unless a superstar conductor or a soloist with a legendary orchestra are performing, there have been plenty of empty seats at the BBC Proms this year. Can this be announcing the death of the regular Symphony concert in the UK I wonder, or perhaps just the death of those who used to attend these concerts? The BSO's chief conductor, Solihull-born Jonathan Nott, is a particular advocate for contemporary music and there is no problem with playing works like the Ligeti in Bamberg where their list of subscribers vastly outnumbers the seats available in their 1500-seater concert hall.


The key moment in any performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is usually considered to be be the Adagietto, the fourth movement. I will return to that later but in this concert, a particular point of interest was raised by the Scherzo just before it. Here Mahler’s keenness for the Ländler which has consumed this entire movement as pure nostalgic reminiscence was enhanced by bringing the principal horn player, Samuel Seidenberg, to the front of the platform to play his horn obbligato to ‘speak out and echo across deep mountain gorges’ as the programme told us. (This magical effect was somewhat spoiled by the soloist having to frequently clear out the tubing of his instrument.)


This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler’s declaration of love to Alma! Instead of a letter he confided it in this manuscript without a word of explanation. She understood and replied: He should come!!! (I have this from both of them!) W.M.'

The W.M. was Willem Mengelberg and these words was written in his own hand in the score from which he conducted in the period when he Mahler’s principal champion (1904 to 1940.) The infamous Tempo of this music is not, in fact, as important as the passion, or poignancy, refracted by the performance. Here even though it came in leisurely at just under 11 minutes (as it does on the BSO's splendid CD available from Tudor), only towards the end did the ‘love’ in Mahler’s ‘letter’ ebb away towards the maudlin.


Throughout the Fifth Symphony the BSO played with refined excellence with telling contributions from many. Colours, textures and tensions in this emotional work, as it transcends the darkness and heads towards the light, was encouraged by the demonstrative, but sensitive, conducting of Jonathan Nott. He is someone who deserves to be better known within classical music circles in this country than he currently appears to be. His musically expansive circular arm movements would be of benefit to any of our British orchestras, and opinion which was reinforced by his compelling account of Tristan und Isolde in the second concert with his orchestra, the following evening.



© Jim Pritchard









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