Maazel’s Mahler Cycle Reaches Warwick:Mahler’s 5th Symphony

Mozart, Mahler. Akiko Suwanai (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra. Lorin Maazel. Warwick Arts Centre 4.5.2011 (JQ)


Mozart: Violin Concerto No 5 in A, K 219

Mahler: Symphony No 5


I realised, just a few days before this concert, that though over the years I have heard many recorded and concert performances conducted by Lorin Maazel I had never attended one of his performances. That came as something of a surprise, as did the realisation that he has recently celebrated his eighty-first birthday. So it was high time to rectify the omission and to take advantage of the fact that Maazel’s cycle of Mahler symphonies with the Philharmonia is not being confined to London but, instead, is being quite widely toured in the provinces.

The young Japanese violinist, Akiko Suwanai, joined Maazel and a fairly small orchestra for a performance of Mozart’s last violin concerto. Miss Suwanai proved to be an attractive soloist in a spruce account of the work. The first movement, which was taken at a nice, lithe tempo, allowed her to show excellent articulation and a pleasing singing tone. That singing tone was even more in evidence in the second movement, which she played gracefully, though I’m afraid I couldn’t escape the feeling that the movement was a few minutes too long for its material. The same thought came to mind in the finale, which was alert and mostly light on its feet, though Maazel encouraged the band to dig into the rhythms of the ‘Hungarian’ section perhaps just a little too emphatically. Miss Suwanai was clearly a popular soloist and was rewarded with a warm ovation. The piece is slight, however, and it was not the artists’ fault that, had it not been for the notes I scribbled during the performance I would have almost forgotten it within an hour or so.

I think that would have been the case anyway but, in truth, the Mozart was dwarfed by the performance of Mahler’s Fifth that followed. The piece made a huge impact but, without taking anything away from conductor or players, I wonder if the impact was enhanced by the venue? This was my first visit to the Warwick Arts Centre so the acoustics of the Butterworth Hall were new to me. It’s a modern hall with a flat ceiling under which is a network of exposed metal girders. I’d describe the appearance of the hall as utilitarian rather than attractive though the audience seating is well laid out and the sight lines are excellent. The acoustics are perfectly satisfactory, if a little lacking in resonance, but the sound is quite immediate, especially when a Mahlerian orchestra is deployed. I suspect that in, say, the Royal Festival hall, which is much larger, the sound would have been less immediate but, on the other hand, with even more platform space available, the Philharmonia might, perhaps, have fielded an extra desk of each string instrument.

As it was, the immediacy of the acoustic enhanced the power and excitement of what was in any event a trenchant and potent reading. Maazel’s interpretation had quite a lot of weight to it – though it was never excessively heavy and the delicate passages were accorded their proper due. The first movement had plenty of power but, thankfully, there was an absence of histrionics. It quickly became apparent that Maazel was exercising a very firm grip on the proceedings. His overall sense of the music’s structure impressed but equally remarkable was his attention to detail. One notable example of this latter feature came about five minutes into the second movement where there is a passage for unison celli, over a soft timpani roll. Turning to the cello section, Maazel conducted this passage, almost note by note yet with great flexibility, giving these bars more of the feel of a unison recitative than I’ve ever noticed before.

The second movement, into which Maazel launched without a break, was trenchant and packed with energy, though Maazel acknowledged fully the more restrained passages in the movement. This was, in fact, the most gripping account of this music that I can recall hearing. It was noticeable too that in this movement the conductor’s gestures, though never excessively flamboyant, became more pronounced as he became visibly more engrossed in the music. Here, as elsewhere, there were a few features that perhaps I wouldn’t wish to hear repeated in a CD recording – the big, heavy climax, in which the orchestra seems to be straining uphill, was dragged out a bit too much, perhaps, though on the night I was caught up in the moment. Happily, though, when the big chorale was reached Maazel didn’t drag the music out and its power registered all the more as a result, especially the second time round.

There was some suitably pungent playing to savour in the scherzo. In this movement the principal horn delivered his demanding solos very well indeed, excepting one or two minor fluffs. His playing summed up the individual and corporate distinction of the Philharmonia, who were on top form throughout the symphony. In this movement, perhaps more than any other, I relished the amount of detail that Maazel brought out while, at the same time, weaving everything together into a whole.

Maazel seems to be of the school of conductors that like to play the famous Adagietto in an expansive way. His performance lasted a good eleven minutes by my watch. The Philharmonia strings responded to his direction with some ardent playing: this was a real love song. Infuriatingly, several members of the audience chose the moment of transition to the finale as the moment at which to favour the rest of us with a barrage of coughing, quite destroying the atmosphere that Maazel and his players had worked so hard to achieve. The finale was held on a tight rein, one felt. Indeed, arguably the rein was grasped just a little too tightly. I had the impression, perhaps wrongly, that this reading was rather stern; the music sounded extrovert but not ebullient. It’s one of Mahler’s most joyful creations but here, though the playing was superb, the music didn’t sound truly cheerful or high-spirited. The sound generated by the Philharmonia was hugely powerful and when the chorale arrived near the end it was a thrilling moment, followed by an exhilarating dash for the finishing line.

The performance was hugely exciting and superbly played under the control of a conductor whose technique is masterly. Maazel may be in his eighty-second year but his abilities and his energies have not been dimmed by the advancing years. He looked spent at the end of this eighty-minute traversal but that’s quite understandable. Many a man thirty years his junior could not have delivered either physically or intellectually in the way he delivered on this occasion. Other performances, both live and recorded, have moved me more but on the night this was a tremendous experience. I’ve waited a long time to see Lorin Maazel conduct but tonight in Warwick it was worth the wait.

John Quinn