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Seen and Heard Concert Review



Mozart, Mahler: London Symphony Orchestra, David Zinman (conductor), Alfred Brendel (piano).  Barbican Hall London, 19.11.2006 (GD)


Zinman used a quite large string complement for Mozart’s most resplendent C major Piano Concerto (K 503). With divided first and second violins Zinman phrased each contrapuntal contour with extreme exactitude. This is the longest and most complex concerto ritornello Mozart wrote. I would have welcomed more ‘Allegro maestoso’ thrust, especially at the close on the dominant with solemn fanfares on timpani and trumpets (the passage Tovey saw as the perfect orchestral setting to a resplendent ‘Dixit Dominus’ chorus). The trumpets certainly needed more projection throughout the first movement; but apart from this Zinman encouraged lucid ‘period’ sounding articulation in strings and woodwind… the latter prominent throughout as they should be. Brendel certainly knows this concerto extremely well, and throughout there was a good rapport between pianist and orchestra. Occasionally Brendel introduced an improvised grace-note flourish or a well chosen appoggiatura, but always in good taste, as was his own elaborate cadenza to the first movement. Brendel still plays with an overall musicality, rare today, even though it must be said that his pianism is not quite as agile as it was over thirty years ago when I heard him in this concerto, in London, with Klemperer.


The second movement sounded rather slow for an ‘Andante’. However the movement’s F major flow and grace was contoured well by Brendel and Zinman. The E flat interpolations for piano and concertante woodwind (coming straight out of any of the great Da Ponte operas) were extremely well articulated by pianist, conductor and an obviously very well rehearsed LSO woodwind section. The ‘Allegretto’ finale, with its mock gavotte-like features, and sudden declensions into minor key territory was handled very well with just the right kind of ambient lilt. Again I would have liked a tad more rhythmic thrust; but overall this was as fine a conception of this great classical piano concerto as is likely to be heard today.

For me Zinman gave a refreshingly direct and objective reading of Mahler’s last completed and finest symphony. I say ‘for me’ as I can imagine Mahlerians, nurtured on the likes of Bernstein and Tennstedt,  complaining that Zinman’s reading lacked idiomatic conviction, or passion, or words to that effect. But I, as a non-Mahlerian, would argue that the rhetorical, ‘imaginative’ drama of Mahler is there, in the score. The conductor’s job is to present the score (as performance) as accurately, and honestly as possible; and this, as far as I could discern, is exactly what Zinman achieved tonight, apart from a few quite marginal (to the overall interpretation) reservations.

Zinman started the huge opening Andante with the great advantage of having the  absolute musical perception to  gauge the two opening falling seconds on violins ( actually setting the movement’s whole pulse) to perfection. The great German philosopher, composer and music theorist Theodor W Adorno, was generally critical of Mahler’s ‘naïve’ and sentimental tendencies,’ but he had a great admiration for this movement, seeing it as an ‘alternating dialogue (or dialectic) between two major and minor musical projections’. And although Zinman’s reading certainly lacked the monumental, epic quality of a Klemperer, or the diatonic thrust of a Rosbaud, it revealed admirable qualities of its own; not least an overall clear rhythmic/harmonic articulation which allowed the listener to hear  clearly the unfolding contours of this huge piece of musical architecture. Zinman’s conducting gestures throughout were minimal but entirely congruent with the letter of the score, which he wisely used…one was never overtly conscious of the conductor’s ego, or ‘interpretation’ being transplanted on to the music; the music spoke for itself. The already mentioned falling seconds (with their motivic link to the ‘farewell figure from Beethoven’s ‘Les Adieux’ piano sonata) develop, in the extended exposition, into a massive climax which transforms into a diminuendo D minor rhythm on muted horns, over which the first timpani intone a funereal sounding four-note figure ( at 110 in my ‘Philharmonia’ score) marked piano and ‘morendo’ (dying). Tonight the LSO timpanist played this figure more double forte? I have checked other editions of the score and they all show clearly the ‘piano’, ‘morendo’ marking; here make clear musical and dramatic sense…it is in contrast to the second intonation of the four-note timpani figure, now with added muted trombone announcements and marked forte. But after this anomaly the whole movement was delivered with tremendous conviction, particularly the long lead-up to the central climax, with the already noted timpani figure with trombone intonations now clearly marked double-forte,  accurately observed; even the slight diminuendo on the last trombone note and pizzicato double-bass and celli echoing the timpani figure, usually ignored, made its exact effect.  The recapitulation re-statement of the funeral cortege, now in fragmented form,   was done with extreme sensitivity, with especially ominous muted horns and trombones. The brief chamber-like cadenza led by solo horn with woodwind and double-bass recitative accompaniment was well executed, although it could have been played a little more sotto voce.

Mahler marked the second movement ‘Landler’, waltz parody ‘rather clumsy and somewhat boorish’; and for the most part Zinman achieved this effect with some particularly quirky phrasing from horns and woodwind. The main C major Landler theme, with its break-up of the opening banal dance tune, was only let down, in parts, by some rather messy cross-rhythms in the lower strings. The two contrasting trio sections were delivered in a straight forward way, with no lingering of the kind found in more indulgent readings. Although Mahler leaves open certain interpretive latitude it is up to the conductor to ensure that any kind of improvisation does not depart from the overall structure of the movement…this Zinman achieved admirably. The third movement ‘Rondo Burleske in A minor is marked ‘very fast’ and ‘defiant’ or ‘angry’ in some editions. I have only heard this conveyed literally in two recordings from the past: the famous Bruno Walter 1938, Vienna recording, and a South German Radio recording from the fifties under Rosbaud, Klemperer, in his recording, certainly sounds ‘defiant’, but it is hardly ‘fast’! Although Zinman again gave an admirably straightforward and accurate reading I did miss that urgent thrusting, defiant quality Mahler asks for. After the contrapuntal pandemonium of the main ‘Rondo’ variations the reflective D major interlude, which of course anticipates the main theme of the concluding ‘Adagio’, was a little blandly played, and the furious rush of the coda was a little under- powered.

Although Mahler marks the final ‘Adagio’ ‘very slow’, it is clear from the harmonic/tonal structure of the movement that he did not want the music to drag. As in the first movement Zinman maintained an impressive ‘Adagio’ tension throughout, so that the music never sounded sluggish or cloying as it does so frequently. The haunting C sharp minor diatonic sequence for bassoon and muted strings in the upper and lower registers sounded more effective for being played in tempo. The projection of climaxes, beginning in D flat Major where all coherently structured within the frame-work of the whole movement (even the whole symphony with its main tonic in D major). The last blazing climax (re-stating the theme first initiated in the ‘Rondo Burleske’) was all the more powerful in its accumulative release. The long valedictory fade-out on ever more pianissimo strings was, for once, beautiful and flowing without ever sounding over-sentimental. I only wish the LSO strings could have maintained a more sustained, ‘held’ pianissimo at the very end of the symphony… they did play very well but that extra pianissimo can sound so compelling, as Abbado has demonstrated in  his Berlin Philharmonic performances. 

One last quibble. We know from well documented records of orchestral performance in Munich, Vienna, Berlin, in Mahler’s time, that the standard practice was to divide first and second violins…Mahler composed his symphonies with this in mind as the score clearly indicates. So why did Zinman, so musically perceptive in other respects, place all the violins on his right? In the opening Mozart concerto Zinman deployed divided violins! This deployment is as essential in Mozart as it is in Mahler. To do otherwise, as Zinman did tonight, remains a complete mystery to me.



Geoff Diggines




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