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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Mahler, Symphony No 3, Knussen, Violin Concerto: Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra, Ladies of the Philharmonia Voices. Choristers of Westminster Abbey, Choristers of St. John’s College, Cambridge, Royal Festival Hall, 12.6.2007 (AO)

Royal Festival Hall Interior - Picture © Richard Bryant

( NB This picture is completely rectangular even though the perspective makes it seem otherwise. Ed )

The newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall officially opened with a gala celebration featuring four orchestras, three conductors and seats costing £500.   This concert, though, was the first “real” taste of what we have ahead.

Mahler’s Symphony No 3 was a brilliant choice of programme.  The Symphony celebrates rebirth, re-growth, the coming of summer, and the triumph of life over adversity.  Triumph after struggle accurately describes the new Royal Festival Hall, bedevilled for decades by architectural compromise.  Indeed, this symphony – and this programme in particular – could have been designed to test the new Hall’s acoustics.

This was an interpretation that celebrated the clear, diaphanous aspects of Mahler’s shining vision of life, with remarkable clarity and precision.  Mahler wrote the symphony on the shores of the Attersee. Thus the imagery of open vistas over the lake, light on moving waters, scented meadows, and the clear mountain air he prized so greatly.  It was a delight to hear an interpretation that gave such clarity to Mahler’s appreciation of Nature. Hence the delicacy of the slower passages, which allow solo instruments to shine through, as if they were tender new shoots of growth.  Salonen’s approach allows the music to unfold without heavy handed forcing.  His textures are lucid, diaphanous like light, clean and understated.  This performance brought me back to the time I sat in Mahler’s composing hut, looking out on the vistas he would have known, the shining lake and the mountains above. 

Mahler would have reached Steinbach through an arduous climb over a mountain pass.  The hushed rumbling rolls of percussion evoked a sense of dark depths, struggling ever upwards. “Pan sleeps”, he wrote, "but gradually gleaming flashes of brass grow ever more insistent, as if something is stirring." Trumpets, horns and trombones play a pivotal role in this symphony, and Salonen structures the development of the first movement around them, each entry signifying a subtle advance.   Much is often made of the march-like elements in the first movement, for Mahler wanted the effect of “a military band on parade, with such a mob (of onlookers) milling about”.  But there are several other marches here, a funeral, the procession of Pan and his drunken followers, and the journey through mountain peaks, and the onward rush of summer itself. While Salonen articulates the details, his sculpting of the structure shows how are built into the foundation of the movement, giving the whole symphony forceful direction.

In his original plans for the symphony, Mahler used the term “Pan awakes !”.  As the writer Donald Mitchell says, Mahler discarded his titles like a builder discards scaffolding when a building is complete : but ignore the original intention at your peril.  Pan represents a disorder, a powerful life force that convention cannot withstand. He drives away winter, and all it symbolises.  In an interpretation as refined as this, the wilder climaxes were created by spirited playing. rather than outright crudity.  The very precision of the playing made it possible for the orchestra to sound like the “uproarious rabble” Mahler had in mind, because rabble is made up of individuals, jostling together.   The impact came from individual instruments, providing quirky nuances.  Salonen’s “rabble” is achieved by much more subtle means than merely cranking up the volume. I would have liked a bit more swagger at times, but given the overall vividness of the interpretation, it’s only one component of the whole.  Alex Verney-Elliott, who was with me, noted how brilliant the trombone solo sounded, clear and bright, yet tinged with a sombre sense of mourning melancholy which greatly enhanced the emotional impact. This particular trombone solo isn't very easy to sustain and it is not the easiest instrument to get subtlety from, but the soloist here made it moan, groan and wail with great persona and verve.

The second and third movements showed an understanding of the place of this symphony in relation to Mahler’s earlier work. Some of the references to Wunderhorn themes are obvious, such as the kuk-kuk theme, and ideas from Das himmlisches Leben.  Salonen also appreciated more obscure details such as the “light” motif which would be incorporated in the Fourth Symphony, juxtaposed with a gorgeously Romantic swirl of melody, gradually morphing into the famous Fischpredigt adaptation which takes the song and ideas from the Second Symphony into new directions.

The new acoustic in the hall revealed itself in the offstage passages.   The drums sounded as if they were in the middle of the hall, though of course invisible, and the brass “from on high” sounded totally natural.  This aspect of the symphony works exceptionally well in the Albert Hall, where I can remember almost weeping when I heard the Cleveland Orchestra soloist in the 2005 Proms.  This wasn’t quite as intense emotionally, but more intimate.  Because the trumpeter on stage wasn’t quite so outclassed, the effect in this performance was more in keeping with the idea of a genuine dialogue between heaven and earth, and fitted the understated refinement of the overall concept. Similarly, the critical trombone and solo violin passages were lucidly defined, the warmer acoustic allowing them to play sensitively, without having to worry about being heard or not heard in the auditorium.  With each new concert, we’ll hear different aspects of the acoustic, but this was most promising.

Michelle DeYoung was magnificent. She is one of the finest Mahler singers in a crowded field, for good reason.  This was an elegant, dignified and highly nuanced performance, truly heartfelt yet not overstated.  Very carefully controlled vibrato warmed her vowels, giving her delivery depth.  Alex was struck by the intimate dialogue between voice and clarinet here, as if the instrument were a snake charmer, curling upwards, urging the voice to rise sensually. His note “sighing in sexual rapture and rupture” is wonderful, and sums it up beautifully.  It was another example of the detailed, score-sensitive, chamber-like approaches of contemporary conductors like Abbado, Boulez and Harding so respected by musicians at this level.  The Philharmonia delivered more for Salonen than did the Los Angeles Philharmonic in his recording of this symphony with them a few years ago.  Since he’s now with the Philharmonia long-term, the relationship will grow and blossom.

Mahler may have removed his title “What love tells me” but he built his music around these ideas, only removing the titles so that people would think beyond the surface, and listen.  Nearly everything Mahler wrote may have referred to death, but his goal was always to overcome it, seeking rebirth, resurrection, redemption and transfiguration.  Ultimately, he’s life-focussed.  He doesn’t get off on death but is always seeking solutions.  He looks towards the future, and to life.  The Third Symphony is easily his happiest.  Pan sleeps, but wakes, driving away the gloom of winter with glorious, lively Spring.  The fifth movement is a clear parallel.  The singer sings of waking from “deep, deep dreams”, then joins the choirs in the rousing big number that sweeps all before it.  It is a vision of eternal life, infinitely stronger than temporal life, achieved through love and faith.  Himmlische Freud, (heavenly bliss) is what the whole symphony has been leading up to.  The mountains have been climbed, the sleeper has woken, and the marches have led us to a final destination.  We’re left with transcendent happiness, the Seligkeit which Mahler refers to again and again throughout his entire output, but often underestimated.

Alas, I was so focussed on Mahler that I didn’t do justice to Knussen’s Violin Concerto which had the honour of being the first piece played in a concert in the new Hall.   It was well played and clear, Tetzlaff doing an excellent job, but nothing can stand up to a Mahler symphony.

Anne Ozorio


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