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Mozart, Mahler: Lars Vogt (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor). Barbican Hall, London 2.2. 2011 (GD)

Piano Concerto No.16 in D major, K 451

Mahler:    Symphony No. 6 in A minor

Composed in 1784, the D major concerto, K 451 was written as one of a set of four piano concerti, the others being K 499, K450, and K 453, and was first performed by Mozart himself in March of that year. For some inexplicable reason it has, since its première, never been performed as regularly as the others in the set. Indeed it is still the least performed or recorded of the later piano concertos. Lars Vogt played the concerto in a curiously understated manner. Indeed, during the first movement’s richly contrapuntal harmonics, Vogt was, at times, barely audible. And this was not wholly to do with the Barbican's restricted acoustics. Other pianists, such as Uchida and João Pires, have proved that these restrictions can be overcome. As the concerto unfolded it was also apparent that there was a basic lack of unity between soloist and conductor. In many ways Bělohlávek’s straightforward, robustly inflected accompaniment was well suited to the ceremonial march-like rhythms in the outer movements, although I would have welcomed more bravura from the trumpets. And he wisely took the second movement 'andante', as an andante, not as a quasi-adagio, as sometimes happens! But it seemed as though Vogt had a completely different stylistic agenda, with all kinds of unidiomatic rubato. In the 'Rondeau' finale the 'Allegro di molto' was well maintained up until the short cadenza where Vogt introduced a slower tempo, a kind of 'tempo di menuetto', which was adopted by soloist and conductor in the brilliantly economic coda. This gave the music a kind of added pomposity which may appeal to some; but apparently not to Mozart, who, although known to be improvisatory in cadenzas, would surely have indicated such a basic tempo change if he had wanted one! 

The Mahler boom shows no signs of fading. Performances of his symphonies are regular occurrences in concert halls all over the Western, and non-Western, world. And at least four new recorded cycles are in process. I often wonder whether this 'normalising' of the Mahler 'event' takes away some of the music’s original power as dramatic symphonic statements? The Sixth Symphony is one of those 'echt' Mahler works whose bold musical rhetoric and huge orchestra (huge even by Mahler's standards) may ultimately be only truly appreciated by signed-up Mahlerians. Even two of Mahler's most devoted conductor disciples, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, never performed the work for different reasons to do with its extremities and excesses. And well-seasoned Mahler conductors like Hermann Scherchen would only perform it with extensive cuts, especially in the huge, rather inflated, finale. Of course the very mention of cuts in our 'completist' age is anathema. But it is worth remembering that Mahler himself, coming from an age of extensive conductorial license, not only approved such revisions/emendations, but advised his conducting students not to be afraid to apply such revisions to his own works.

Tonight Bělohlávek mostly took a literal, straightforward approach to the Sixth, thus allowing the music to speak for itself. And the work has enough to express in it own terms without the aid of conductorial rhetorical indulgence. Bělohlávek set the opening with a firm and steady rhythmic structure. The many ostinato, percussive, march-like progressions were allowed to speak with a clarity not always apparent in other performances. Bělohlávek’s approach was helped by his deployment of antiphonal violins.  The so-called 'Alma' theme in A major, which is cross-referenced with what Mahler’s biographer Henry-Louis de la Grange called the 'negative' chorale theme, emerged as clear and inevitable. The pounding rhythms in A major which end the movement (deliberately 'bombastic' for de la Grange) did not have quite the rhythmic finesse of a Boulez, but the note of hollow triumph was well realised. Bělohlávek played the Andante as the second movement, which was Mahler’s original intention, the idea being that a contrast of relief, after the grim march rhythms of the first movement is thus attained. But surely one could argue equally convincingly that by placing the Andante as the third movement a sense of even greater contrast is achieved in relation to the ensuing huge and bleak finale? 

Much of Bělohlávek’s handling of the Andante was admirable in the sense of proportion, skilfully subtle phrasing, and a minimum of tempo variation. But it sounded more like an Adagio. Conductors like Kubelik and Boulez have demonstrated that a forward moving pulse here, in the manner of the Andante marking, serves the overall contour of the movement to its greater advantage. The Scherzo, marked 'Wuchtig' (forceful), and with more than a tone of the 'Walpurgisnacht', was well delineated with suitably cutting, but musical, rhythms. But by the time we reached the more lyrical second subject with its plaintive theme in 'the old-fashioned style', Bělohlávek introduced a sudden speeding up with the grotesque intrusion of a descending rhythmic theme on woodwind, brass and timpani, related to the movement’s opening rhythmic figure and described by de la Grange as 'fragments of themes which shoot up from the darkness, only to fall away again'. I am not sure of the point of this deviation. For me, it basically distorted an otherwise finely realised rendition of the movement. 

Overall the huge finale was coherently conducted, with few concessions to unmarked rubato. But it didn't quite 'hang together' as it does for the likes of Boulez, Kubelik or Abbado. In the complex recapitulation, leading to the grim rhetoric of the coda, I noticed a kind of sag, not so much in tempo structure, as in dramatic tension. However, it must be said that the tragic coda itself was handled with consummate skill and timing. There was also a curious lack of thrust and tension in the complex development section (beginning at 134 in the Eulenberg score). Here themes from the first movement and the initial exposition of the last movement itself are delivered predominantly by the whole string section in canonic, stretto mode. Mahler specifically directs this passage to be played 'Kraftig', 'gemessen'' (strong, forceful and measured), but Bělohlávek seemed to do the opposite here, under-emphasising the strong accents, thereby making the section sound weak and routine. The much discussed hammer blows - two tonight, in line with Mahler’s last revision - made their shattering effect.

So, overall an impressive performance of arguably Mahler's most complex symphonic statement, notwithstanding the reservations expressed above. Lastly, special mention must be made of the high standard of playing and engagement achieved by the BBC orchestra tonight, with especially excellent contributions from the brass, woodwind and percussion sections.  Playing of such conviction and involvement must be due in no small measure to the orchestra’s respect for the musicianship and training skills of Jiří Bělohlávek. 

Geoff Diggine

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