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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 26: Kurtág and Mahler BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov. Royal Albert Hall, London, 1.8.2007 (JPr)


It is not clear to me why Mahler’s Ninth Symphony requires  even more modern music to precede it but György Kurtág’s Stele featured in the first half of this Prom. Stele  takes its name from the ancient Greek word for a memorial slab and  is a very short, sombre work written in 1994 for Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Within it there is an arrangement of an earlier piano work written by  Kurtág as a tribute to his friend and teacher András Mihály. The score employs a vast orchestra (including four Wagner tubas and a cimbalom) which is required to play with a chamber-like delicacy and   is in three movements. From the opening octave G the music subsequently coalesces into a slow lament before switching suddenly  into an angry, brass and woodwind-heavy second movement which slows down as it moves on further into monumental sonorities. The final movement is a repetitive, almost tear-stained, elegy which has a strong atmosphere but seems a  a bit too bleak. For  a piece lasting less than fifteen minutes,  it is surprising to write that it drags on rather too long.

The seemingly mummified programme notes at the BBC Proms continue to be full of information that only those with a couple of music degrees can understand,  but at least Peter Quantrill’s introduction to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony concluded appositely. Writing about the composer and the work Quantrill says: ‘His daughter Maria (known as Putzi) had died of scarlet fever in July 1907; indeed it was when the doctor visited to minister to her grieving family that he gave Gustav a check-up and discovered his heart murmur. Most parents are far more consumed by the deaths of their children than the anticipation of their own demise. And if Mahler was indeed working out his grief over Putzi in the Ninth, he could not have left her a more lasting or more loving memorial.’

The work is pervaded by death and mortality; loss, loneliness, resignation and farewell are all there too, the latter most noticeably in the ‘Leb-e-wohl’ motif (recalling the hymn ‘Abide with Me’) from Beethoven’s Les Adieux piano sonata that pervades the final movement

As Norman Lebrecht wrote in advance of this Prom,  ‘Claudio Abbado spent six months up a mountain when he was 54 studying Mahler’s Ninth before he conducted it for the first time; Ilan Volkov will make his stab at the huge essay on life and death tonight at the Proms, aged 31.’ The passion and commitment of Volkov's BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was unquestionable and I am sure for many the overall effect was both moving and draining. For me, there was an ambiguity in the performance because I found Volkov’s interpretation both rather youthful but also rather soporific and ponderous at times. The big climaxes were all there of course, with the trumpets blazing away sturdily but a clear vision of architecture did seem lacking, at least to me. Volkov emphasised all of the contrapuntal lines that came from Mahler’s study of Bach, and in the second movement the Ländler rhythms were strongly accentuated but while   this as undoubtedly a sincere interpretation, there seemed so much concentration on detail that even here the work's innate vulgarity came over as rather stilted. The third movement needed more freedom too.

The final Adagio was the best of the four movements and the rich, warm string sound provided exactly what Mahler asked for when he marked the score ‘mit inniger Empfindung’ (‘with deepest feeling’). The finale’s heart-stopping conclusion is probably conductor proof anyway but the silence of the audience both during and after those powerful last minutes does so much to release this work from the concert hall and focus our minds on the composer and a life lived.

I recently received a copy of a paper published in the mid-1990s by Dr David Matthews which goes someway to justifying all I have ever written about  the connection between Mahler and Wagner. In this discourse,  Dr Matthews reminds the reader that though Mahler never conducted Parsifal himself probably due to the embargo on performances outside Bayreuth at that time he had visited the festival to hear it in 1882, 1889, 1891 and 1894. As Dr Matthews writes,  ‘Mahler was more profoundly influenced by Wagner than by any other composer’.

Undoubtedly - at least to me-  Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is inconceivable without Parsifal Act III and not just because halfway through the Adagio the horns blare out a familiar theme from that work. But how far can we go here? Is Alma the ‘ewige Weibliche’ (‘the eternal feminine’) whose love Gustav hoped could redeem him, and through his psycholanalysis-like compositions did Mahler seek ‘Erlösung dem Erlöser’ (‘Redemption to the Redeemer’) - and more importantly did he  sometimes see himself as the ‘Redeemer’? I wonder,  and while that – as they say – is another story for further consideration at another time. Such consideration does hint however at Mahler’s great humanity,  something that should shine through the ninth symphony particularly - the composer has been through much in life, yet had survived so far and written  music that will surely be eternal. If Volkov didn’t quite get there in this performance perhaps he needs to live - just a little more-  himself?


Jim Pritchard

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