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Ligeti, Mahler: Saschko Gawriloff (violin), Jonathan Nott (conductor) Philharmonia Orchestra,   Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 5.12.2006 (AO)



Ligeti chose Saschko Gawriloff to realise his Violin Concerto (1990, revised 1993).  Gawriloff not only premiered the Violin Concerto, but was also part of its creation, since Ligeti, like many modern composers, believed in open ended composition.  The cadenza used in the finale is Gawriloff’s own.  It fits in seamlessly, so intimately does Gawriloff understand Ligeti’s idiom.  Being in Gawriloff’s presence felt like being part of the continual process of exploration that this music represents.  Ligeti may no longer be with us, but Gawriloff gives us completely unique and personal insights into his work.  Ligeti writes with the sparest textures, so sensitive interpretation is very much part of the process.

In Gawriloff’s hands, the violin became an eloquent guide through this strange, otherworldly musical landscape.  The lines stretch fluidly, extending higher and higher until they seem to blend beyond the pitch of human ears.  The airiness is emphasized by the use of ocarinas, which produce a sound more hollow and flattened than, say, a piccolo, and evokes primeval folk tunes. The brass is muted, also producing unfamiliar hollow sounds which emphasize the “wind” behind the metal. In the unusually good programme notes, Paul Griffiths describes the concerto as a “folksong for the homeless”.  He’s referring to the lack of a steady home key, to sounds hovering and wavering, refusing to lock into place, but his phrase also evokes the timelessness of instruments like fiddles and pipes.   Not that Gawriloff’s playing is in any way unsophisticated and “fiddle like”. On the contrary, it takes real virtuosity to make a familiar instrument sound like music from another planet. The fifth movement, the Appassionato, was spectacular, Gawriloff creating intricate harmonies and counter-harmonies that seemed to soar higher and higher.  When the full orchestra joined in again, in celebration, I gasped.  During Gawriloff’s long solo, I’d literally been holding my breath.

Hearing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in a smallish venue like the Queen Elizabeth Hall was a rousing experience.  With the orchestra filling the whole platform, and the close acoustic it was guaranteed to create an impact.  No wonder Mahler himself chose smaller venues for this symphony, for he was seeking “Kammermusikton”, meaning the integrated sound world of chamber music adapted for larger forces.  It would have been too much to expect that this performance might have been built around the refined precision of a chamber music.  I’m not even sure that that’s what the audience wanted, given that so much public taste leans towards broad brushed exuberant Mahler rather than a more contemplative approach.  Jonathan Nott, with his interest in the subtler textures of new music, would be in a good position to explore these deeper, more esoteric aspects of the composer, but not, perhaps, just yet.  When his recording of the symphony was released, I loved it and spread the word.  It wasn’t an innovative reading but it was enjoyable because of its relative intimacy.  The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra is a highly esteemed and experienced orchestra, in a town noted for its music school. Nott was conducting an orchestra for whom Kammermusikton is almost second nature.  The Philharmonia, one of London’s best, and veterans of many a Mahler Fifth, including the excellent recording with Ben Zander, just a different sound. 

This performance seemed to focus on the more High Romantic elements of Mahler performance practice.  The darkness of the Trauermarsch was somewhat muted, a relatively leisurely procession.  When this section is performed with an air of emotional tension, as befits a funeral, the other, more lyrical sections shine out in greater contrast.  Nott did manage to focus on the inner melodies, such as the almost waltz like two step.  It creates an ironic sentimentality which counterpoints the darker elements, signified by the trumpet, interjecting its warning that not all is cute and pretty in the world of this symphony. I also liked the calm playing of the cello, like a penitent contemplating mysteries.  It seemed to encapsulate this reading, with a sense of deliberation and relative slowness.  Stürmisch bewegt seemed to reflect more a march of noisy pilgrims than of soldiers in strict formation. Nott indulged the Romantic lushness of harp and strings, getting some luscious colours.  It’s an apt interpretation of the idea that the Adagietto was Mahler’s coded declaration of love for Alma: but what really matters is how the movement fits together with the others as a whole. In this performance, it wasn’t easy to detect a sharp overall vision. Thus we ambled into a cheerful and uncomplicated Rondo Finale, with some uncharacteristic ragged playing.  But Mahler is never boring: when he writes rousing and exciting endings, he knows the effect on an audience. This audience went wild, stunned, I suspect, by the sheer impact of big music in a small setting, Kammermusikton or not. 

 

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)