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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review


Prom 33, Britten and Mahler: BBC Philharmonic / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London. 7.8.2007 (ED)


The combination of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Cooke’s completion of Mahler’s 10th symphony could have been a powerful one, and it was in part. But as an encompassing evening of music reflecting on the nature of grief and death there was something lacking in the absolute gravitas of the event.

The Sinfonia da Requiem is a work seemingly consumed with obsessive grief. From the first strokes upon the timpani,  its mood is set – varying slightly to lighten the emotion to one of loss or remembrance. For Britten, who clearly felt the loss of his parents deeply, the more he explored these emotions the harder it became to see any escape from them. If bleakness is the pervading tone for the work’s first movement – something that Noseda relentlessly pressed home – the second movement seemed dreadfully close of becoming a parody of grief. Whether it was Noseda’s wildly flamboyant gestures that induced this feeling or the resultant occasional looseness of the orchestral playing was hard to know. Whatever the case, his swift beat was relentless in its drive with the overdone gestures echoing the music’s emotionally precarious state. It was hard to ignore the Mahlerian elements within the work too, clearly showing the influence of one composer upon another: brass lines winding their way across the stage space or the upper strings recalling Mahler in their occasionally abrasive tone.  The closing movement, Requiem aeternam, was calm though scarcely less obsessive in its overall concept. Beneath its surface the torments established earlier continue, barely concealed. Resolution and rest are two qualities that never seem truly achieved in Noseda’s conception of the work, rightly picking up on Britten’s intentions. However, what resolution there is comes at a price. This, Britten might be saying, is an essential consequence of what it is to be human.

Mahler gives alternative thoughts on much the same theme in each of his symphonies. The tenth,  as completed principally by Deryck Cooke aided by Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin Matthews and David Matthews (who was there, score in hand), charts a path from the dark world inhabited by its predecessor to eventual valediction through the enduring power of love. Poignantly,  the uncompleted work was written at a time when Mahler was confronting both his own mortality and the infidelity of his wife Alma – she was having an affair with Walter Gropius, whom she was to marry some years later.

Questions of form, structure and musical balance are crucial to the potential success of any performance and the conductor should address them all with sound judgement. Noseda’s approach here showed some consideration for each, but was ultimately weakened by a killer instinct for precision in his execution. Broad tempi in the outer movements might have suggested much of the despair within the music, but often details within the playing told another story.

The opening movement exposed some initial thin violin tone  when under pressure, though this was complemented by some ethereal playing from the violas – arguably the most secure of all the BBC Philharmonic’s string sections. The collective brass brought some majesty to proceedings, against which the fluctuating tempo that Noseda encouraged,  rather underplayed the neurotic sea of emotions which Mahler had sought to expound through his wry observance of echt-Viennese orchestration.

The second movement, the first of the work's two scherzos, was bold and upbeat, playing on a jovial Ländler. Its lightness however was not without a hint or two of sarcastic asides, neatly interpolated by the woodwinds to further unsettle the listener.

The brief third movement – Purgatorio – provides a kind of  preludial structural importance to the work’s second half in Mahler’s conception, but  did not convey quite enough purgatorial feeling.  Another scherzo comes as the fourth movement, to mirror the second in structural terms, except that the contrast it presents could hardly be greater: gone is all humour: impending death is omnipresent. A certain amount of élan in the playing however brought home the raw emotional power of nearly every utterance.

The final movement closes the circle of emotions in an unexpected way by moving to  feelings of forgiveness and love, though not without acknowledging that these things should be seen as a consequence of all that went before them. The hollow bass drum which so rudely interrupted the poised flute and viola lines in this performance made the point. Serenity is re-established afterwards – albeit too briefly perhaps – and Noseda pushed through the final gradual ascent towards forgiveness too relentlessly for it to be fully effective in hitting the mark.

Due to this, and the sum of much that preceded it, the performance was routine rather than revelatory and unfulfilling where it should have left feelings of elation in its wake.


Evan Dickerson  


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