Meticulous and Refined Mahler Chamber Orchestra with an Uplifting ‘Rhenish’ Symphony

25/01/2018

Schumann, Beethoven: Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Daniele Gatti (conductor) Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Lucerne (KKL), 23.1.2018. (JR)

Daniele Gatti (c) Silvia Lelli

Schumann– Overture to Genoveva Op.81; Symphony No.3 ‘Rhenish’ Op.97

Beethoven – Symphony No.4 op.60

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra appears, on the face of it, to be something of a misnomer. Formed twenty years ago by Claudio Abbado (followed by Daniel Harding), they describe themselves as a ‘nomadic collective of exceptional musicians’. There are 45 members from twenty countries, they are based in Dortmund and come together for projects and tours. Their repertoire is wide; all the Mahler symphonies were performed with Abbado and Chailly. For their current Swiss tour (taking in Lucerne, Zurich and Geneva) they have chosen smaller-scale symphonies which suit the core players of the orchestra to a T.

Schumann’s only opera Genoveva was a flop back in 1850, as Wagner (whom Schumann met in Dresden) had warned him. The plot of the opera has several similarities with Lohengrin, which was composed during the same period as Schumann was writing Genoveva. The opera’s overture makes occasional appearances in concert: the opera itself has re-surfaced in the last few decades, its champion being Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Harnoncourt recorded it in 1996 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and conducted it at Zurich Opera in 2008 (a DVD is available) which led to a positive re-assessment of the work. The overture is short and tuneful; the orchestra played it with considerable verve.

The orchestra’s tour marks the beginning of a transition from the symphonic works of Beethoven – which it has worked on intensively with Gatti from 2015 until May 2016 as part of a Beethoven cycle – to those of Schumann. In a few months’ time, the orchestra will perform an additional Beethoven-Schumann programme before embarking on a symphonic cycle dedicated to Schumann.

There is a palpable warmth between Gatti and the members of the orchestra and Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony audibly benefited from meticulous and painstaking rehearsal. The opening Adagio was beautifully measured and Gatti smiled throughout this most joyous of symphonies. Phrases were delicately shaped and the sound was refined. Clarinet, bassoon and flute principals stood out for their virtuosic contributions. The final bars were wittily executed.

The chief delight of the concert, however, was Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ symphony, his Third. His Third is actually his Fourth, as what is now known as No.4 was actually written nine years before his No.3. Schumann composed his ‘Third’ on moving to Düsseldorf in 1850. I spent some teenage years in Düsseldorf where Schumann is revered and this ‘Rhenish’ symphony in particular, the title referring to the majestic River Rhine, which flows through the city. The uplifting main theme of the first movement, the hallmark of the symphony, was used in the 1960s by West German Radio for a local news programme entitled ‘Hier und heute’ and became instantly recognisable by the locals, even if few knew it was Schumann.

The horn section carry the main theme, and they did so with distinction. After the graceful Scherzo, we were treated to the gentlest of slow movements, followed by the grandiose chorale-like fourth movement, which is said to depict a slow and grand procession through lofty Cologne Cathedral. The brass section excelled. Finally, a lively foot-tapping Finale, concluded by a turbulent thrilling Coda to put a smile on everyone’s face.

John Rhodes

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