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Mozart and Mahler, Philharmonia Orchestra, Emanuel Ax (piano), Sarah Fox (soprano), Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall 11.2 2006 (JPr)


Mozart: Overture, La Clemenza di Tito
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25 in C K503
Mahler: Symphony No. 4

The concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 11 February 2006 acknowledged the continuing celebration of two birthdays, Mozart's 250th and Charles Mackerras's 80th.

Across his distinguished career Mackerras has conducted a breadth of composers' music from Bach, Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, Janáček, Martinů through to Britten. He is a survivor of a generation of polymath conductors, the like of which we will never experience again. Early in his career (during the 1950s and 60s) this extraordinary range and sheer variety probably held Mackerras back: he was known unflatteringly as 'Chuck 'em Up Charlie' because, as a freelance for most of the 1950s and 60s he would go anywhere, anytime and was always a quick study. Later on he became known better for his interest in historically-informed performance practice and while not particularly renowned for his Mahler, I particularly agree with his views that the supposedly significant final revised versions of scores, including those of Mahler, are  often no more than the composer's last thoughts.


So Mackerras has sought to pay particular attention to what the composer intended or would have heard performed himself. Mahler himself conducted his compositions faster one day and slower the next, and often changed the orchestration and dynamics depending on what hall he performed in. I wish Mackerras and the Philharmonia had had the time to do this for their concert.

All Mahler's ten symphonies plus his 'song symphony' Das Lied von der Erde ('The Song of the Earth') are somehow connected since they form a continuous unravelling and development of the composer's unique artistic vision. Numbers 2 to 4 are the so-called 'Wunderhorn' works and in each of them Mahler borrows his earlier settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn ('The Youth's Magic Horn'), early nineteenth-century German folk poetry that had been collected and published by von Arnim and Brentano. The entire symphony is built around a song from this collection, 'Das himmlische Leben', about such down-to-earth glories as feasting and singing in heaven. At one point, Mahler considered calling it a 'Humoresque' (thus inviting comparison with Dante's The Divine Comedy) in the somewhat sardonic sense that life is a constant embarrassment of vanity and self-deceit, relieved on occasion by nobility and simple goodness.

The original title of 'Das himmlische Leben' (‘The Heavenly Life’) was ‘Many Fiddles Hang in Heaven’. It was composed in 1892 and was originally penned-in as the finale of the titanic Third Symphony. At some point Mahler decided this would be an anti-climax to an already huge piece and decided to compose an entirely new work (1899-1910) with this song as its final movement. This new symphony was to be more optimistic and cheerful and although plenty of childlike innocence can be heard, it would not be Mahler without hints of a parallel nightmare world intruding, often almost subliminally, from time to time. Mahler planned this fourth movement for boy soprano and marks the score ‘singer’ without further instructions apart from saying that the voice must have ‘a sincere childlike expression, always without parody!’


That 'Das himmlische Leben' was originally intended for the final movement of the Third Symphony is evidenced by the fact that its music can be seen in several movements of that work. But the length of the first movement became so unwieldy that Mahler decided to include his song here in the Fourth where it would serve both as finale and the main musical resource for all the other movements. Over the years, listeners have been delighted by the jingle of sleigh bells with which the first movement opens, a feature taken over directly from the song.

The soprano Sarah Fox was the undoubted success of this performance and matched Mahler’s requirements quite well without ever actually having the volume to dominate the orchestra. Here (in the fourth movement) Mackerras's interpretation was suitably ecstatic but elsewhere, and at least for the first two movements, he seemed to be seeking an interpretation that came from an over-analytical study of the score rather than from an innate emotional response to it. In this he was probably hampered by the problem of performing a fairly mammoth work in such an enclosed space and while this did not matter for the serenity and profundity of the final two movements, for the more rumbustuous first two it certainly did. While I am sure that Mackerras's experience of Janáček could only have coloured his depiction of Bohemia as envisioned by Mahler to good effect, the pastoral feel of the early part of the symphony however, was spoilt by tempi pulled this way and that, causing excessive schmaltz: the sounds of nature from the woodwinds cut through the orchestra more like the whistles of an approaching train than anything of animal origin.

Mahler felt that his Fourth Symphony suffered unduly from snap judgments 'put about by uncomprehending hacks'. One of his first true supporters was the Berlin music critic Ernst Otto Nodnagel, who said that the Fourth was 'more artistic and convincing in its simplicity than any work by Strauss'. A century later, today's audiences find it to be elegant in an almost Mozartian sense.

A smooth link, you may think, to the first two items in the concert, an almost superfluous Overture from La Clemenza di Tito followed by Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C  K503, not only one of his grandest and most ambitious concertos but also elegant music that balances the piano’s sparkling flourishes with the orchestra’s rich, stately accompaniment. From a compositional point of view Mozart was undoubtedly a genius (no revelation here of course!) and the lasting impact of his music is far beyond anything else composed in the late eighteenth-century. However juxtaposing two Mozart items like that - and shoot me down why don't you? - I just get the feeling that if you hear one Mozart work, you hear them all. Emanuel Ax embodied rotund jollity at the piano and displayed a superior elegance of tone ashis hands ran up and down the keyboard with virtuosic dexterity and a pure poetic feel for a work that is probably not that technically demanding.

If Mozart could return in his 250th anniversary year to hear his intimate and fleet-footed works given overblown and portentous performances - as seemed the case here - I wonder what he would think of current performing practice for no way was this how Mozart would have heard his compositions. Again, the small hall might have been partially responsible or perhaps it is simply the sheer brightness and power of modern pianos that is the problem. Without doubt, in Mozart's day pianos would have had a softer, clearer tone and would not have thrown up such a wall of bright sound.

The Philharmonia were their usual immaculate selves throughout the evening and they were especially strongly led by James Clark who gets a special mention for his significant and prominent contribution to the swapped violin 'folk fiddle' solo in the second movement of the Mahler symphony.

(c) Jim Pritchard



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