Prom 22: Noseda’s Impressive Mahler Seventh at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 22: Mozart, Knussen and Mahler: Gillian Keith (soprano), BBC Philharmonic / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 30.7.2012. (JPr)

Mozart – Don Giovanni – overture
Knussen – Symphony No.2, Op.7
Mahler – Symphony No.7

As I take an Olympics-enforced break from the Proms it is time to give a personal view on a few important issues apparent from this season so far. Firstly, there have often been more empty spaces at the 2012 Proms I have been to than I have ever seen at the Royal Albert Hall before. By comparison – despite what the press would have you believe – the Olympic event I attended the day before was nearly completely full. I refer to ‘empty spaces’ because it is clear that the Promenaders are more discerning that previously – or simply it might be that the people who grew up standing at the Proms over recent decades are now too old to go now … or are no longer with us. I am sure the ‘big ticket’ Proms are well-attended but it is concerts like this when the Royal Albert Hall is now only a little over half full. The circle seating was so empty that I had the suspicion that ticket-holders probably were relocated downstairs.

Also, the Proms should be clearly grateful for the Olympics for some of the audience who were clearly tourists whose hotel concièrge, unable to get them into Wicked, possibly suggested this traditional British event as an alternative – much to their obvious consternation at the Knussen on the programme. Equally new this year is the walkouts that appear to be happening each night – dozens left at the end of the third movement of the Mahler symphony!

Mentioning ‘programme’ I am amazed how year after year the BBC continue to sell printed material that mostly requires a music degree to understand. Referring to the Knussen music we heard (Symphony No.2) Bayan Northcott – who, I accept, has probably forgotten more about music than I ever knew – allows the following to be printed: ‘Its three main parts comprise paragraphs of harmonically static but texturally active invention, each followed by a ritornello, slower each time … The setting of the first complete Trakl poem, ‘Die Ratten’, starts at the third ritornello and runs through the scurrying scherzo to its violent central trio, leaving the orchestra to recapitulate the scherzo on its own …’ etc. etc. What use is this to a visitor new to the Proms who wants to learn something about the Knussen they are hearing? Mentioning that ‘new audience’ – many of whom were in evidence – how much longer must we put up with clinking glasses becoming some added new percussion to music played after any interval? – even Mahler never included glassware in his symphonies as far as I am aware.

The music programme was a typical quirky one; bookending the short Knussen Symphony No.2 we had a Mozart overture and a Mahler symphony. It was Mahler’s Seventh and given that the final movement is inspired by Die Meistersinger it was astonishing that Stephen Johnson’s programme note included not one mention of Wagner. With the deepest respect to Stephen if there had been no Wagner … there would have been no Mahler 7 – at least not in the form it was written. When Mahler performed his Seventh Symphony in 1909 in Amsterdam he proposed a first-half with three Wagner works but in the end only played the Die Meistersinger Overture. I have never heard this Mahler symphony programmed with that Wagner overture and surely this would have been more appropriate than the overture from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. At least then the real origins of this symphony could be debated and the audience properly educated about some of the music they are hearing. Perhaps if anyone at the BBC reads this they might like to reply to me about these issues I am reflecting on?

Anyway the Mozart came and went. Despite a rather oversized orchestra it was a strangely muted affair, so much so that the woman next to me at the back of the stalls said to her family ‘That was rather quiet, wasn’t it?’ Knussen’s youthful work, his Symphony No.2 , was written when he was 18 and is always likely to be like Marmite to its listener – you will love it or you loath it. Despite is use of texts from Georg Trakl and Sylvia Plath and a pulsating rhythmic impetus it remains – as is the fashion – devoid of melody and real meaning. Gillian Keith’s vocal utterances – they could not really always be described as singing – were never as glittery as her blush pink evening gown. Even as fine an artist as Ms Keith struggled to harness her reserves of stamina with all the shrieking that she was required to do and did not finish the fourth movement ‘An die Schwester’ as strongly as she had begun the 17-minute ‘symphony’.

I was looking forward to hearing Gianandrea Noseda conduct Mahler’s Seventh Symphony after enjoying his Beethoven 5 with the London Symphony Orchestra recently (review). The sheer numbers on the platform, with string players almost overflowing into the stalls, precluded the music having any great intimacy that might be there in the two Nachtmusik movements. Overall I prefer this – my favourite non-vocal Mahler symphony – to be more restless and more rampant. However, what Noseda did was fine enough for me and he shaped the flow of energy of each of the movements with infinite care and exquisite attention to orchestral detail. Stephen Johnson correctly wrote about this symphony that ‘It is also extremely challenging to play, with every section of the orchestra given its moment in the spotlight. If any of Mahler’s symphonies deserve to be described as a ‘Concerto for Orchestra’, it is the Seventh’. Noseda focussed that ‘spotlight’ when necessary on everyone from the massed percussion, the harps, and the brass to the strings, more than in any other Mahler 7 I have heard. As a result, perhaps there was a little more stop-start to the flow of events than I prefer but I will accept that for the colourful sounds and panoramic textures the superb BBC Philharmonic often achieved for their Conductor Laureate. With no hint of the anxiety with which the finale can be imbued I was happy to let the wonderful sounds wash over me here – as throughout the symphony’s 80-minute span – and with the riotous ending with horns suitably blazing, for me real joy was unconfined – and that is very unusual with Mahler.

Jim Pritchard