MusicWeb International's Worldwide Concert and Opera Reviews

 Clicking Google advertisements helps keep MusicWeb subscription-free.

Other Links

Editorial Board

  • UK Editors  - Roger Jones and John Quinn

    Editors for The Americas  - Bruce Hodges and Jonathan Spencer Jones

    European Editors - Bettina Mara and Jens F Laurson

    Consulting Editor - Bill Kenny

    Assistant Webmaster -Stan Metzger

    Founder - Len Mullenger

Google Site Search


Internet MusicWeb



Mahler, Symphony No. 6 in A minor: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Jac van Steen (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham. 29.3.2011 (JQ)

The Birmingham Mahler cycle is entering the home straight with only the Second Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde to come after this present performance. Some of my London-based colleagues have reported signs of Mahler overkill in the capital in recent weeks. Sensibly, Birmingham has spread its cycle over the full 2010/11 season and as a result I doubt Mahler fatigue has broken out in the West Midlands: certainly Symphony Hall was well filled for this concert.

The Sixth is one of Mahler's most potent utterances so I was keen to hear it as part of this cycle. Anticipation was heightened by the presence on the podium of the Dutch conductor, Jac van Steen, whose direction of the 'Resurrection' Symphony at the 2010 Three Choirs Festival had impressed me mightily (review). His conducting on this occasion was just as fine. He has the advantage of being a tall man, which enhances his bearing. But more than that, he exudes an air of natural authority on the podium. There is nothing flashy about his style; instead his beat is always very clear - he's one of those conductors (and there aren't that many in my experience) at whom you can look at any moment and know exactly where he is in the particular bar of music. Furthermore, his gestures are not only clear; they're also natural and relevant. In short, he seems to me to have a pretty immaculate technique. I thought it was revealing that at the end the orchestra were very keen for him to take a good deal of the applause for himself, which I take as a sign they liked and respected his work with them. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Van Steen's basic tempo for the first movement was sturdy and firm. He didn't rush the music in the manner of Bernstein, but neither was the pace akin to a trudge as Barbirolli was wont to do. I thought he applied a sensible degree of weight to the music, which sounded purposeful. When the 'Alma' theme arrived van Steen ensured that the music surged with the appropriate degree of passion. The exposition repeat was taken, as is usually the case these days. The playing of the CBSO was impressively sonorous and incisive. Even this early in the symphony's epic journey there were some excellent solo contributions to admire, not least from leader Zoƫ Beyers and principal horn Elspeth Dutch - these proved to be a foretaste of consistently good solo work across the orchestra throughout the performance.

Van Steen held the development section of the first movement on a tight rein. The orchestra's rhythms were consistently tight and attention to detail was exemplified in the observance of accents, which gave to the music the impetus that Mahler intended. The nostalgic Alpine section, complete with offstage cowbells, was well handled.

The scherzo was placed second. I recognise the arguments for playing this movement third but on balance I prefer to hear it in the order presented by van Steen. The marking is 'Wuchtig' ('weighty') and van Steen observed this closely. His pacing was quite deliberate and he encouraged the players to dig into the music and project Mahler's somewhat gothic orchestral palette powerfully. The more lightly scored, 'rustic' episodes were nicely done. As the movement progressed, however, I began to wonder if the core tempo was perhaps just a touch too steady. The performance was a good one but I sensed that perhaps some of Mahler's mordant wit was not fully conveyed.

The Andante moderato featured some lovely playing from the string section and the CBSO woodwind section was on equally fine form. Invidious though it may be to single out an individual, however, I thought that Elspeth Dutch, who was on superb form all evening, really excelled in this movement, offering some marvellous horn solos. Much of the movement came across with the right amount of touching tranquillity but the extended climax had sweep and ardour. And because van Steen and his players had been so successful in the tranquil passages, the climax stood out in sharp relief, as it should.

There was one slight but regrettable misjudgement before the finale when Mr van Steen allowed the orchestra to re-tune briefly. I'm sure this was a pragmatic decision, with an hour of playing behind them and the vast finale to come. Unfortunately, however, this brief interruption dissipated some of the tension created by the performance thus far.

Then came the epic finale: thirty minutes of drama and turbulence. Van Steen demonstrated a complete command of this huge symphonic structure; his was a most authoritative account if it. The orchestra's response to him and to the music was superb: the playing seemed to acquire an even greater degree of commitment. The performance was as dramatic as you could wish for, yet van Steen kept everything under firm control: there's no unbecoming hysteria to his Mahler. The thirty minute-long span of this movement is an enormous test of the musicians' stamina and concentration but the test was passed with flying colours on this occasion. After the second hammer blow the music seethed and boiled in a real symphonic ferment; it was gripping stuff. (I should add that the hammer blows, which can sometimes be problematical, came off very well here. They were executed by a combination of bass drum and what looked like a substantial hollow wooden box, struck with a long-handled wooden mallet.). I was mildly surprised that van Steen included the third hammer blow just before the coda; I thought that most conductors eschew that nowadays. After that third blow came the bleak, grim coda and the final catharsis. Happily, the audience did not rush to break the silence at the end and van Steen was able to maintain the atmosphere before the justly-deserved ovation began.

This was a very fine performance indeed. Jac van Steen's conception of Mahler's Sixth was a gripping one and it was marvellously realised by the CBSO, which was on trenchant form. This was surely one of the peaks in Birmingham's excellent Mahler cycle.

John Quinn


Back to Top                                                  Cumulative Index Page