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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 51 : Mahler : Symphony No 3 Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano), Trinity Boy's Choir, London Symphony Chorus (women's voices). Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, 22.8.2007 (AO)


Such were the queues to get into this concert that it was clear that this was “the” Prom of the season.   At the end, the applause was resounding, most of the audience standing in ovation: even those who don’t know or like the symphony wouldn’t dare knock an experience like this.  This was particularly gratifying because earlier in the week, we’d heard Gustavo Dudamel and the Simòn Bolivar Youth Orchestra.  They played with such enthusiasm that their performance was thrilling, if lacking in depth.  Would people appreciate that refined playing like that of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra can also be impassioned and exciting? Would Abbado’s unconventional approach to Mahler be understood ?  For some time now, I’ve felt that we’re entering a whole new era in the way we listen to Mahler, led by conductors like Abbado, Boulez and those they work with and  as is so often in the case of truly visionary new work, there’s sometimes incomprehension, sometimes outright resentment. So the success of this Prom extends much further than the concert itself.

Affirmation is perhaps the key to understanding Abbado’s approach and understanding the Third Symphony is critical to understanding Mahler’s entire output.  It takes a certain amount of knowledge to appreciate just how good this symphony is, yet if that's not understood, it’s almost like not appreciating what the composer was doing at all.  Perhaps this is  why this symphony has been performed so often in the last few years, more often  I think,  than even the ubiquitous Fifth.  Mahler’s preoccupation with death may give the impression that he’s a gloom laden neurotic, but the new approach to his work focuses on his ultimate direction, the vanquishing of death through resurrection, transformation and eternal life.  This is perhaps the sunniest of Mahler symphonies.  The composer may have removed the titles of the movements so that people would have to listen, but there's no mistaking the warmth and good humour in this symphony, which even comes through in Horenstein.

Abbado achieves this life affirming approach by extreme lucidity of texture.  What was striking was his careful observation of silence and stillness, as if he was watching the music unfold and grow.  With musicians of this calibre, the playing is so exquisite that it really is worth paying attention to every note and nuance.  The Lucerne Festival group is no ordinary orchestra: ts members are hand-picked from the finest ensembles in
Europe.  Individual players are virtuosos in their own right :  Kolya Blacher, the first violin, Jacques Zoon, the principal flautist, and the magnificent Sabine Meyer, principal clarinet.  Even within the orchestra  units like the Christ and Hagen Quartets which perform on their own outside the orchestra are embedded.  Moreover, many of these players have been through Abbado's own “system” of inter-connected  orchestras, such as the Gustav Mahler Jugend Orchester and the Gustav Mahler Chamber  Orchestra.  Communication between these players is so instinctive and so closely have these musicians worked together that the flow between them feels even to an observer like a kind of invisible, electric current.  Technically they are so confident that they are free to focus on the sheer joy of playing together. Their polish increases the sense of calm confidence which is so essential in a score carefully marked ohne Hast and Nicht eilen !  Slow doesn't mean without energy. No wonder listening to them is such a liberating experience !

This combination of technique and intimate, small ensemble sensitivity makes it possible for the orchestra to achieve a chamber-like intricacy that animates the music so well.  The detail in the first movement is critical because it intensifies the energy that propels the movement ahead.  It operates on several levels. There are the “peaks and vistas”  creating the strong structural force that pushes the music forwards, each new surge propelling it further. Yet, the detail is important too.  To paraphrase Mahler, the whole world lives in this symphony : Nature is coming alive again in summer after storms and setbacks.  If you wish, you can visualise insects buzzing, or birds chirping.  Indeed, the references to Wunderhorn themes, in particular the repeated kuk-kuk call make the imagery explicit.  Playing as refined as it was here releases the animated lyricism in the detail, so it seems to pulse with “the rhythm of life”, to borrow a clich
é which for once makes sense.  There's a lot more to this music than earthbound marches and folk dance and  this orchestra makes it feel magical.

Abbado juggles the constantly shifting changes of tempo so they keep the music afloat.  Indeed, this performance was so deft, it evoked the crossed patterns of Charles Ives' Fourth Symphony. The dynamism was such that Abbado's fondness for unusual pianissimo enhanced the sense of light and liveliness.   The bows on the double basses hardly seemed to vibrate, yet were clearly murmuring in unison. Even the massed trombones were played with such understatement that it was their brightness, rather than their brassiness, that came across.  When Kolya Blacher played the solo violin part, the sound seem to emanate from a very deep and mysterious source.  The offstage posthorn was less successful  however, not from weakness in the playing but because it was a little too close to the main platform, losing the spatial element that is so important to the interpretation of this symphony.  Sometimes, the posthorn  comes from way up high, in the furthest galleries and really does sound like a celestial presence. This lost detail  was a pity because the sense of vast distance, of heaven and earth communicating,  matters to the overall meaning.

Anna Larsson's voice rose from the stillness very much like the way Blacher's solo unfurled, both with a strikingly “organic” feel, as though they were growing out of the orchestra, rather than disconnected.  Without vibrato, O Mensch loses some of its dynamic – it is supposed to “vibrate”, just like tendrils vibrate when a plant emerges from the soil and  Larsson's vibrato was just right, so the image of growth unfolding came over very well indeed.  It recurs so often in the orchestra that is was good to hear it reflected in the voice, too.  The brightness of the women's and boys' choirs also provided a nice counterfoil to the depth in her singing.   These two movements are so gorgeous that sometimes, the finale can seem sedate in comparison.  However, no chance of that in this performance.  All along, Abbado and his orchestra have known where they were headed, and the last movement here was played with real conviction, truly Empfunden, and deeply felt. The effortless confidence of this orchestra made the purpose of the movement vividly clear.  At last, God, man and nature are in harmony.  Mahler told a friend that the symphony “begins with inanimate nature and ascends to the love of God”.  It is a powerful message, expressed all the more powerfully with understated, quiet commitment.


Anne Ozorio


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