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Tchaikovsky, Mahler : Alexander Markovich (piano), Neeme Järvi (conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London 24.10.2007 (AO)

Two weeks ago, I attended a talk about the differences between German and Russian song.  Briefly, German song is introspective and intimate, while Russian song is declamatory and operatic.  This concert, juxtaposing Tchaikovsky and Mahler illustrated how the theory applies to orchestral music. The sensibilities are fundamentally different, even though the differences may be subtle.

The melody that starts Tchaikovsky’s Concerto no 1 in B Flat minor is so well known that it’s been used in pop songs and TV ads, but when a good pianist orchestra perform it well, it’s revealed in its true late Romantic glory.  Alexander Markovich luxuriated in the gorgeous harmonies, showing how the concerto’s strengths extend far beyond the flamboyant introduction.  He and Neeme Järvi have performed together many times, so their rapport was very close, Järvi conducting so the orchestra supported the soloist fully, for in this genre, one voice is paramount, despite the beauty of the other parts, especially the flute. Markovich’s long solos were assertively played, exuding confidence. Abstract as it is, this is pictorial music, the Cossack dances and folk tunes adding lively colour.

To bridge Tchaikovsky and Mahler, Markovich’s encore was Liszts’s transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. It was a brilliantly inspired choice because it distils the opera’s sprawling themes into a more intimate, contemplative form. Without elaborate orchestration, the piano alone must express the essence of the drama.  I was quite pleased that he didn’t use a flamboyant, flashy style but played with understated sensitivity, as the piece’s essential “psychological” character is sometimes obscured by over-wrought exaggeration. It was a good choice too, because Wagner’s music grew from the same German tradition, that was deeply ingrained in Mahler’s musical sensibility.

Mahler wrote a single movement piano quartet and completed Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Die Drei Pintos, but the First Symphony shows that, even at this early stage, Mahler’s musical direction evolved from song.  The symphony incorporates his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.  He hasn’t quite developed the idea of a song symphony yet, but the songs are so integral to the symphony that it is strikingly original.  Significantly, though, the songs are not stand alone set pieces but woven into the orchestration, even though whole phrases are quoted unchanged.  Sometimes their origins are important.  For example, there’s no mistaking that the optimistic, lyrical passages in the first movement, refer to the springtime imagery of the song Ging heut’ morgens übers Feld.   Mahler doesn’t need words to evoke images of nature and birdcalls.  If you really want, you can make more of the connection between phrases like “Ei du, gelt ?  Schöne Welt !” but the songs aren’t there to serve as narrative.  What come across is the spirit of exuberance. Even if the playing was, at times, a little ragged, it fitted the overall sense of rustic good humour.

Järvi included Blumine, a movement soon discarded from the symphony by the composer. It was itself an attempt to reuse music from Mahler’s abandoned setting of the play Der Trompeten von Säkkingen.  I don’t know why Järvi used Blumine, but it worked in the context of this performance. The music is a gift for trumpeters, Paul Beniston playing with so much verve and spirit that the piece presaged the wonderful trumpet and trombone passages in the final movement, where Beniston sat away from the other trumpets, and among the brass. The solo trumpet thus took centre stage, literally as well as acoustically, which made complete musical sense.  There aren’t any “roles” in this music, but the trumpet part is pivotal.  At times, the tempi slowed dangerously, but Järvi used them to highlight detail such as the harp melody and the violin duet.  Blumine isn’t often performed because it does drag, holding up the thrust of the symphony but this was pleasant enough, a reminder of just how much less conventional the rest of Mahler’s music really is.

Blumine did however make the third movement even more vivid, for it’s a boisterous piece, with Ländler, stomping ostinato and shrill brass.  Fortunately, Järvi didn’t dwell on detail, focussing on the impressionistic vigour rather than a literal definition.  There was far more definition in the next movement, often called the Todtenmarsch because it was inspired by a famous picture where a huntsman is dead, his bier followed by animals he used to hunt. It’s wryly subversive, its meaning not lost on Mahler with his sharp sense of irony.  It’s also a corrective shock after the breezy warmth of what has gone before. Järvi emphasises the stunned sense of numbness, but put much more into the gentle “Lindenbaum” theme, which reprises the last song in the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen cycle, with its images of sleep, and by implication, of death.  The violins played the “Gute Nacht” passages with great feeling.  Hence, after a fast “gypsy” flourish, he ended the movement suddenly and with complete silence.

The silence served an artistic purpose because it made the final movement sound even more explosive in contrast.  As Mahler wrote, it rises “abruptly, like lightning out of a dark cloud….the outcry of a deeply wounded heart”.  Hence the crashing cymbals, the loud timpani and brass, trombones, trumpets and tuba all ablaze.   As Mahler said, “our hero is engaged…in a most dreadful battle with all the sorrow of this world”.  It’s supposed to induce shock and awe. 

Here it convinced through volume rather than depth of interpretation, but was impressive nonetheless, if a little forced.  As the “triumph” motifs resumed, the orchestra was on firmer ground. There was some good ensemble playing here, but individual sections shone, such as the trumpets and trombones and Kevin Rundell’s superbly judged solo on double bass.  I’ve always heard echoes of the Messiah in this movement, “and he shall reign, and he shall reign……” though I’ve not seen any specific reference to Mahler having quoted Handel.  There was some very good playing here, especially When the horns play directionally, they do it for musical reasons as the sound deflects sideways, and when they stand up, their sound is literally “above” the strings and winds.  Yet it’s also visually dramatic as the sight of so much gleaming gold stimulates the imagination.  I still can’t figure out why Bělohlávek wanted the second violins to rise, for it dampens the impact.  Drama, for Mahler, is more about inward, personal response on the part of the listener. It’s not narrative.

The resurgence of the springtime themes suited Järvi best of all, for this performance’s strongest asset was its irrepressible good humour and optimism.  This is a young man’s symphony after all, and Järvi understood its youthful swagger

Anne Ozorio


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