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Seen and Heard Concert Review



Shostakovitch, Mahler: Sergey Khachatryan (violin) Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (conductor) Philharmonia Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 27.6.06 (AO)


As he walked onto the stage, Sergei Khachatyan’s agonised expression made me worry for him. Within minutes, though, it was clear why he is yet another violin Wunderkind who can produce technical wonders that belie his youth.  He stretched the long languid lines in the slow, mysterious Nocturne that begin Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, his playing enhanced by particularly lovely playing from the Philharmonia.  The first violins shimmered at the edge of his tone, the harp echoing the thematic sequence.  In the Scherzo, Khachatryan literally threw himself into the wild, turbulent mood, bringing out its driven, demonic undertones with agile playing.

Frühbeck de Burgos showed his sensitivity as a conductor, always listening, modulating his orchestra to complement the soloist.  Watching him conduct was instructive: he gently held the massed double basses back with a simple, but definite, gesture. The dynamic between conductor and orchestra was almost palpable. Although Frühbeck de Burgos these days is not a regular visitor to London, the Philharmonic picked up his distinctive style as if by natural instinct.  With his experience in opera – his Meistersinger is a favourite – he has a feel for the drama inherent in good music.  When the orchestra hurtled into the flamboyant Burlesque, the very sight of the lone, silent soloist reminded us of the essential tension at the heart of this music.  Khachatryan received, and deserved, a huge ovation, but for me it was the combination of orchestra and soloist that made the piece come alive.

Frühbeck de Burgos has made many recordings, but none of Mahler.  Nonetheless, those who know the music know that he understands Mahler well.  He was awarded the Gold Medal of the International Gustav Mahler Society in 1996 for his work in Vienna and Spain.  I was looking forward to this concert because Frühbeck de Burgos departs from approaches to Mahler held rigidly in some circles.  Good musicianship, moreover, benefits from a deep, creative understanding of a composer’s idiom.  Frühbeck de Burgos can conduct with precision because he does seem to have a vision behind his interpretation, just as Mahler himself wrote with a sense of purpose.

This performance placed the First Symphony firmly in the context of Mahler’s early influences.  The imagery of dark, nocturnal forests is central to Germanic folklore, and to the sensibility of the Romantic period.  It’s natural, then, that Mahler, so aware of the position of music in connection with other arts, would choose to start the first movement with what are effectively “forest murmurs”, evoking panoply of images pregnant with meaning for his time. Indeed, Siegfried was a kind of “Titan” individual who, like Mahler, had to make his own way in the world. Tentatively, the clarinet and flute break through the murmurs: the clarinet’s kuckuck a direct reference to the cuckoo heralding Spring who will appear in other songs and symphonies. The music then wells up to an unequivocally lyrical transposition of Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld. Frühbeck de Burgos beamed with happiness, for this is exhilaratingly happy music, especially when separate from the other, darker songs in the cycle.  It is, after all, about an idealised “Schöne Welt”.  At the crescendo, the whole orchestra seems to explode with enthusiasm, horns and big brass in full fanfare, but Frühbeck de Burgos keeps the textures clear and distinct.  It is exciting because it is so breathtakingly pure.

In the second movement, the references to Ländler and folk dance are emphasized.  Frühbeck de Burgos had the orchestra play the swaying, swaggering theme with panache, the lovely clarinet embellishments played with instruments held high.  The heady, swirling figures in the theme later used in the Second Symphony and Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt came across confidently, for this conductor understands Mahler’s quirky sense of humour, which is never far from the surface.   It’s not simply that this conductor’s personal geniality brings out the humour:  Mahler’s sense of the ludicrous is far more deeply ingrained in his work than is often appreciated. Hence the “funeral march” in the third movement, inspired by a picture in which animals escort a hunter in his cortège   This image frightened the composer when he was a child, for it addresses the idea of transience, a world overturned, and a reversal of order. It’s a theme later to be explored in the Dionysian deconstruction in the Third Symphony. In the First Symphony, though, it’s still relatively undeveloped. 

A well modulated roll of the massed kettledrums announces a colder mood.  The slow march here was supported by a surprisingly gentle clash of cymbals, whose reverberations seemed to float on, highlighted by two bursts of sound from the double basses, a simple but telling detail.  Then the orchestra reignites in full crescendo.  In contrast with the rounded, warm lyricism that had gone before, the “inferno” sequence was wildly angular, trombones, trumpets and tuba in full fanfare.  Yet as the conductor raised his hand, in an instant the powerful surge subsided into a recapitulation of the balmier “summer” theme.  Frühbeck de Burgos uses volume to accentuate the colours and contrasts in the score: it works well because this orchestra is so good they respond immediately, as one. There’s no room for muddy playing in this approach.

Thus the final movement really was Stürmisch bewegt, a tsunami of sound relentlessly, powerfully surging forward. It was both beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Yet at no point did the individual strands get lost in the tumult.  Highly disciplined and accurate musicianship kept the colours clear and vibrant.  Amazingly, the horns sounded almost like bells tolling, the bigger brass providing a deeper undercurrent.  Sudden bursts of colour, such as from the flute and clarinet, lit up the curtain of sound created by the rumbling roll of percussion and the extremely well balanced strings.  And so this symphony ended in a truly jubilant mood.  Just as there were quotes from Lieder to provide subconscious commentary, the quotes now were from Handel “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and he shall reign forever and ever”.  It is, unmistakably, a triumphant ending, bursting with hope, life and vitality.  Frühbeck de Burgos has the horns stand up to play in a splendidly theatrical gesture, which fits the exuberant spirit of this music.  A complete Mahler cycle tracing the composer’s development, symphony to symphony, from this conductor and an orchestra of this standard would be a wonder to behold. 


Anne Ozorio



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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)