Prom 69: Impressive Messiaen and Mahler from Chailly and Gewandhausorchester

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Messiaen and Mahler: Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 2.9.2012. (JPr)

Messiaen: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
Mahler: Symphony No.6 in A minor

 Responding to a commission in 1963 from General de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture, the writer André Malraux, to write a work commemorating the dead of two world wars, Messiaen spent the summer of 1964 composing Et exspecto. (Having experienced it I am happy to reveal my musical ignorance and feel urged to write – I am surprised it took him that long!) He wrote to Malraux the following October: ‘I have taken the subject in its loftiest sense and have written five pieces on the Resurrection of the Dead. These are scored for a large orchestra of woodwind (full) and brass (very full, ranging from a piccolo trumpet in D to bass saxhorns). To this is added metallic percussion (bells, gongs and tam-tams) … It seemed to me that the nobility of the subject required this majestic and powerful orchestration.’

Noble and solemn it certainly is and frequently surprising repetitive in its (over-)reliance on two droning bass tubas and reverberating gong and tam-tam crescendos. The most individual moments are heard when we hear the ‘voice of Christ’ in the third movement from the woodwind’s plaintive bird-calls – based on the song of the Brazilian Uirapuru and indicative of the Messiaen’s use of birdsong that he loved. I’m not overly familiar with Messiaen’s work and wondered why after the first movement Riccardo Chailly and his valiant Leipzigers seemed to have time to check their onward travel arrangements until I was told that the silences in this work are almost as important as the sonorities we hear. (Once again the audience was ill-served by the printed Proms programme that failed to mention these were times for individual reflection on Et exspecto … and not for expectorating!)

Et exspecto gains a certain profundity from being performed in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall. Indeed Messiaen asked for performances in ‘vast spaces, churches, cathedrals, even in the open air and on mountain tops.’ It has already had nine Proms performances though I doubt whether it is something – given the sparseness of the orchestration – that allows much room for re-interpretation.

Messiaen takes is from the abyss to the apparent joys of eternal life and in a sense begins where Mahler’s Sixth Symphony ends. I suppose this is not the only way they are connected, as Mahler also included in his sound world almost everything you could get a sound from – including a rute, cymbals, tam-tam, off-stage deep bells …… and cowbells both on-stage and off. Of course now we have a full-complement of strings triggering someone to say behind me – ‘Now that is what an orchestra should sound like’.

Over the recent Mahler anniversary years I avoided his prophetically pessimistic Sixth Symphony because I had heard several performances in only a short time and it was now good to come back to it with fresher ears. I doubt there can be a better venue than the Royal Albert Hall also for this symphony, and we had cowbells up in the Gallery sounding as though they were in a distant valley and the theatrical spectacle of a percussionist mounting steps up to a huge sound box to wield his hammer like an executioner’s axe. What we heard from the world’s oldest civic orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, was a balanced, coherent account of what can seem a sprawling work through their wonderfully radiant and incisive playing.

Mahler conductors often have interpretive agendas and the composer’s music leaves itself open to that, but here Riccardo Chailly’s interpretation of the Sixth Symphony was refreshingly free of this. Of course choices have to be made: should we have be Andante before Scherzo and two hammer blows or three, but even here I think Maestro Chailly got it right. Perhaps the march-like first movement was driven a little too hard but through his experience in opera, Chailly made the second subject – the ‘Alma theme’ – sound less contrived and more spontaneous. Indeed he made the densest of all scores sound the most transparent and I am sure I heard many lines that are usually obscured and he did this without suppressing any others. Mahler often changes orchestral colour by distributing those melodic lines amongst different instruments, so connecting them without interrupting their flow is another challenge for both conductor and orchestra. The Leipzig Gewandhaus handled it admirably, as is only to be expected fgiven their magnificent tradition. These changes of gear were (for once?) totally imperceptible and all the solos were virtuosic. I have rarely heard an orchestra sound better or more ‘at one’ with the music. The capacity audience was gripped from first note to last.

Maestro Chailly seemed to make all the right choices, he was scrupulously attentive to every detail, yet maintained a tight grasp of this infinitely complex work, with its many mood and character-changes, and powerful climaxes. The Andante was suitably ruminative and the Scherzo eerily bucolic. The music can often sound chaotic but Chailly found a thread of thematic continuity in the tumultuous finale – that not all conductors can manage – to justify the absence of the third of the ‘blows of fate’. I have never heard the final A minor chord sound more harrowing – a truly impressive achievement from all concerned.

Jim Pritchard

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