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PROM 9: Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K216, Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C# minor, Christian Tetzlaff, violin, Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 22 July, 2005 (TJH)



Mahler’s Fifth is a piece that lives or dies by its third movement, an extended Scherzo that in a five-movement symphony accounts for over a quarter of the total running time.  But it is not an easy task to sustain an audience’s interest for 18 minutes of triple-time bucolica: the succession of Ländler and waltzes has little of the dramatic or harmonic invention that characterises the surrounding movements.  The best performances, therefore, are those that simply give in to the rhythm’s irresistible Viennese pull and go dancing.



Christoph von Dohnányi clearly forgot to bring his dancing shoes on Friday night, however.  His take on Mahler 5 had no room for such frippery, so deadly serious was his intent.  Instead, understanding the throwaway quality of anything written in 3/4, he disposed of the entire movement as efficiently as could be.  The only bits of it he seemed interested in were the noisier climaxes, which he drove home with thunderous abandon.  Dance?  After the last convulsive chord, I could barely walk.



Such was Dohnányi’s way with the symphony as a whole.  Beginning with a funeral march is certainly a strange way to kick off a 75-minute work, but there is irony woven into Mahler’s score – perhaps even a hint of self-parody – and a great orchestral sensitivity in the quieter moments.  Dohnányi wasn’t interested: it was all so much filler between the episodes of violence from the Philharmonia’s massed brass and percussion sections.  Don’t get me wrong: this was exiting stuff, at least for a while.  The problem was that every climax seemed equally huge, with none more spectacular than the last – such that the awesome brass chorale that appears at the end of the second movement felt like little more than the latest in a string of big bangs.



After the stolid, unsympathetic Scherzo, Dohnányi whipped through the famous Adagietto without so much as a sentimental glance backwards.  While the tendency of conductors to over-egg this particular movement was graciously avoided, a teency bit of emotion might not have gone amiss – and may even have set up the finale as a celebration of life, rather than just another aural assault.  As it was, it came over as a very well played but dramatically inert series of climaxes, leading to a restatement of the second movement’s chorale that was distinctly uninspiring.  If only Dohnányi had thought to include a little Mahler in his Mahler 5.



Afterwards, a palette cleanser would have been most welcome.  Violinist Christian Tetzlaff’s take on Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto would have done the trick superbly, had it not already taken up the (very short) first half.  Tetzlaff played with just the right amount of sweetness in his tone, with a tight, fast vibrato characterizing the second movement’s beautiful Adagio.  In the outer movements, he swayed this way and that, bobbing his head with the music like the leader of a very large string quartet.  In fact, the orchestra followed him more than they did their principal conductor, and to considerably greater effect: perhaps they should have dispensed with Dohnányi altogether and kept Tetzlaff on for the second half.



Tristan Jakob-Hoff



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