Concert review

COMMENT - a platform for occasional ventilation of hobbyhorses and bees in bonnets.


Excellent performances during the summer of three of Mahler's largest symphonies, by two great conductors and three fine orchestras, give food for reflection from an unusual angle, not considered often enough. It would be invidious to embark here upon criticising minutiae of performance or the interpretations of Haitink and Rattle, whose recordings of those symphonies are secure amongst top recommendations.

Critics rarely mention from exactly where they have Seen & Heard the performances they review. Seating positions can make a crucial difference in many, perhaps most, halls.

Bernard Haitink brought the European Union Youth Orchestra to the Royal Albert Hall with Mahler's 7th on 18 August. This huge orchestral edifice was built up with the sure control of overall structure for which Haitink is famous. It goes without saying nowadays that the best youth orchestras, which are able to afford generous preparation time for their concerts, compare with the best professionals, and this multi-national orchestra did not disappoint. But from seat at 8 o'clock in the stalls, expensive and prestigious yet in truth one of the Albert Hall's 'dead areas', the effect was a little muted. The orchestral sound was loud, yet the strings sounded neither full nor rich at the climaxes, lessening the emotional impact. More delicate passages in the two nachtmusiken came across better, with mandolin and guitar making their full effect; intimate music heard in this vast auditorium can draw the listener in. Having just returned from walking in the Alps, Mahler's cow bells as played earnestly up in the gallery, sounded to me unconvincing; perhaps percussionists should wear them round their necks to get the right effect?

Haitink also gave the Mahler 3rd at the Proms, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Birmingham Youth Chorus. I caught their repeat in Edinburgh's Usher Hall on 25 August. From seats in the front row, just below the violins on the high platform which left most of the orchestra invisible, balance was far better than anticipated and involvement total. The bright sounds bounced off the roof and you felt you were in the midst of it all. Haitink's undemonstrative control could be watched and savoured, and the whole experience was invigorating and greatly exciting. A recommendable seating position, though you'd never have guessed it could have been!

Mahler's 2nd, with Sir Simon Rattle bringing his City of Birmingham Chorus to the Albert Hall with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, was one of the hottest tickets in the last week of the Proms, and expectations were not disappointed on 7th September. From a seat right next to the double basses all was vivid and immediate, and from the first moment one was enveloped in Mahler's world. It was a privilege to watch Rattle, conducting without score, subtly moulding the phrasing with facial expression and slight body movement equally as with his baton; he appeared to be responding to his players at the same time as directing and inspiring them. A wonderful celebration of, and for, Rattle at his time of transition.

It is not rare to read a review which makes you wonder if you were at a different concert. Perhaps music critics should tell readers where they sit, by way of declaration of interest. Then there is the further consideration that some readers will have experienced the same performances at home - that is another story!

Recommended recordings:

Mahler 2nd Symphony - Rattle & Birmingham Symphony Chorus & Orchestra EMI CDS7549622 Purchase from Crotchet

Mahler 7th Symphony - Haitink & Concertgebouw Orchestra Philips 442 050-2PB10 Purchase from Amazon

Peter Grahame Woolf

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