An Impressive Mahler Fifth from Tiison Thomas and the LSO

June 6, 2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart and Mahler: Gil Shaham (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 3.6.2012. (JPr)

Mozart:  Violin Concerto No.5 in A major, K219
Mahler:   Symphony No.5

Without undue fanfare it seems – and months after the end of the composer’s anniversary years – the London Symphony Orchestra and one of their principal guest conductors, Michael Tilson Thomas, have performed a short series of Mahler symphonies. Recently when the always-excellent Semyon Bychkov and the LSO played Mahler’s Third Symphony to a number of empty seats last month, I feared that concert-goers were rebelling because of the recent Mahler overload. But no, there were few seats to be had for (yet) another performance of Mahler 5 that was programmed only days after Daniele Gatti performed it with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony retains its popular appeal, despite changes of mood in the music deserving adjectives‘ schizophrenic’ or even ‘manic depressive’ used by Stephen Johnson in his programme note,. He adds, concerning the frenetic waltz-like Scherzo, that ‘Many psychologists now believe that the over-elated manic phase represents a deliberate mental flight from unbearable thoughts or situations …’. For Mahler 1901, the year his symphony was composed, was a typically difficult one for him but he had also fallen in love with his future wife, Alma Schindler. Several years older than her, he was, even now, full of doubts that he was too old and, as I often repeat, imagined himself Hans Sachs to the young Eva from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger story.

The Fifth starts with a desolate opening funeral march, then comes the enforced gaiety of the Scherzo, the very familiar Adagietto (do I need to remind readers of its role in the film Death in Venice; probably not) and it all ends with an exuberant Rondo-Finale. About this joyful conclusion, optimists will think all’s well with the world when love is triumphant, however the pessimists amongst us will be left believing that, like Mahler, we are all striving for a happy ending but are never expecting to achieve it. Whatever lay behind this Fifth it marked the start of Mahler’s ‘middle period’ and was the first of three instrumental – but extremely autobiographical – symphonies.

Unfortunately, this was the only one of the three Tilson Thomas/LSO Mahler concerts I could get to and if this was the standard of the others then I left sad that I had not been present at the other two. Little of the Mahler I heard during 2011-12 was as good as this and together the conductor and his impeccable orchestra gave a compellingly convincing account of this somewhat quixotic symphony.

The length of the symphony can be anything from 75 to 90 minutes and Tilson Thomas came in at the lower end of these timings. This was because he never lost momentum or allowed the tempo to drag, not even with the naturally slow opening where there is much that recalls the music of Beethoven, from principal trumpet Philip Cobb’s four-note opening calls to the low strings of the second motif. The second movement seems to suggest too much wishful thinking never leads anywhere; both ecstasy and desolation is to be found here and it is suitably fitting that fleetingly a few notes of Tristan can be recognised. The horns were impressive again in the Scherzo and the LSO’s fine body of strings excelled during the two trio sections, using their bows at first and then pizzicato. This was the music of rustic peasants and Tilson Thomas was in his element here with wide sweeping gestures covering all sections of the orchestra in front of him.

The Adagietto was heart-wrenchingly romantic – here, clearly, the love song without words to Alma that it must be. Alma always had her own doubts about Mahler ending the Fifth Symphony with a brass chorale but there it is, signalling a (dubious) bright dawn. However, when performed like it was here, the joyfully contrapuntal music is irresistible. The LSO continued to play admirably right to the end under Tilson Thomas’s tight, yet lyrical, control and never did he let anything – however frenzied it might become – get out of control. Strangely, having praised Jiří Bělohlávek for recently making Mahler’s music sound Czech, here under Tilson Thomas never have long passages sounded more as though one of his major influences was klezmer music.

Before the interval a small ensemble of LSO players exquisitely accompanied Gil Shaham playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.5 (K219). At only 19 this was the last of five concertos for violin he would ever compose. It matches its technical demands to a gentile radiance and good humour and is usually described as the ‘Turkish’ because of some exotic colouring in the final movement. Shaham’s contribution seemed to arise from the overall tapestry of sound rather than be imposed upon it through the strength of a swaggering virtuoso … and the concerto sounded all the better for it. After overcoming what sounded to me like some ill-tuning in the first movement, Gil Shaham played with a light touch and an increasingly attractive sound. He was at his best in a plaintive Adagio but he showed some fearsomely well-controlled attack during the faster movements. I suspect Shaham is a natural improviser and – even if they were more traditional than that – his cadenzas gave that impression, but surely printed concert programmes could inform the audience more about this? It all ended with suitable introspection after a percussive and passionate ‘Turkish’ finale.

Jim Pritchard

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