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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom  63,  Mahler, Thea Musgrave: Evelyn Glennie (percussion),  Nicholas Daniel (oboe), BBC Symphony Orchestra,  Jiří Bĕlohlávek, (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London,  31.8.2007 (AO)

There was huge applause after this well attended performance,  so it must have made a lot of people very happy. There's no way Mahler's  First Symphony can fail to stir, because the music is inherently exciting in itself.  Moreover, the orchestra stood up to play the final passages, while playing the final passages, showmanship guaranteed to win hearts in the heady atmosphere of a Prom late into the season. 

Earlier this year,
Bělohlávek conducted Janáček's Excursions of Mr Brouček.  It was magical, a performance I shall never forget, for he  captured the composer's quirky wit so vividly and   soon after that, he conducted Mahler's Third Symphony.  Since Mahler grew up in what is now part of the Czech Republic,  Bělohlávek's emphasis on the folk culture aspects of that symphony was very feasible.  If the performance as a whole didn't ignite, it wasn't altogether  disappointing, since he had revealed an unusual approach to the first movement, which few others would have the background to attempt.  Thus I was looking forward to hearing what he'd find in the earliest of Mahler's symphonies.

Inspired by Wagner, Mahler is filled with the spirit of unbridled adventure.  The springtime imagery in the first movement is deliberate : this is the work of a young man setting out on an adventure. Not for nothing does he quote from the second song in his early cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the one where the protagonist turns his back on past frustration and starts anew : Ging heut Morgen über's Feld , “strode out this morning, over the fields” is so full of self confidence that the personal participle is unnecessary. 
Bělohlávek caught the mood of springtime happiness, bringing out the charming folk melodies and birdsong and while    there's certainly warmth in this symphony,  there's also sharper purpose.  While  Bělohlávek doesn't usually underplay the crescendi, here they didn't come over as particularly strategic to the overall direction. They've been called “breakthroughs” because they propel the music forward: Mahler seeks destinations and he's not a tourist but a traveller.

Similarly, the penitential march isn't just funereal as it was here, but a reference to the darker, more demonic passages, which symbolise what the “hero” (or spirit) of the symphony must undergo in order to reach his goal.  Mahler didn't quote from Liszt's Dante Symphony for nothing. This music can take a wide variety of interpretations, but what makes it really exciting is its dynamic thrust, which here was somewhat muted.

When Mahler's First Symphony was premiered, audiences were hostile to its unconventional style.  A friend of Mahler's wrote that “the audience, in its usual heartless way, had no understanding of anything new......they were uncomfortably startled out of their thoughtless habits”.  Mahler did make changes, such as removing programme titles, but he didn't make the work any easier. As late as 1903, he wrote to Alma, “Confound it, where do people have their ears and hearts that they don't get this ?”

No such problems at all with the premiere of Thea Musgrave's Two's Company.  Musgrave has been a Proms favourite for years and this new commission could have been tailor made, so well did it succeed.  Everyone loves Evelyn Glennie too, for her personality and charisma as much as for her musicianship, and this was a star vehicle for her talents.  Good as Nicholas Daniel was, eyes and ears were on Glennie !  The basic premise of this piece is a dialogue between percussion and oboe, the two instruments physically moving closer together around the stage as the piece progressed.  This is a Musgrave speciality, and contributes greatly to making the piece work.  On the other hand, many composers (including Mahler) have used the idea of sound in space in more complex ways.  Macmillan's Veni, veni Emmanuel, played by Colin Currie at an earlier Prom, also springs to mind. Two's Company is a pleasant sequence of sounds, with some bright jazzy touches.  The central dialogue is so predominant though that I wondered how it might sound pared down in a sparer, more chamber-like setting.  Certainly, this was a huge hit with most of the audience.  “None of that Birtwistle business” someone remarked, which is perfectly valid.  But I remembered what people said about Mahler a hundred years ago.

Anne Ozorio


Anne Ozorio's  review of Bělohlávek's Excursions of Mr Brouček
is Here.

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