Memorable Mahler in BBC Symphony’s Season Opener

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gordon, Mahler and Shostakovich: Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 3.10.2012. (JPr)

Michael Zev Gordon:Bohortha (Seven Pieces for Orchestra)
Shostakovich: Symphony No.4

Perhaps it is too early to announce that the London classical music scene is fatally ill because it might just be the post-Olympics blues but in recent days international artists such as Anna Caterina Antonacci, the Vienna Boys’ Choir, Elīna Garanča and Alice Coote, with the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, London Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Orchestra all involved, have performed to meagre audiences. Only time will tell what actually is happening. Those who were not present have the opportunity to listen to this concert for a short while it lasts on BBC iPlayer and I recommend those who can to do so while it is still available, though it would have been better experienced live.

I have long been hunting down the influence of Wagner on the music of those who came after him and believe I have identified Mahler’s Seventh Symphony as his ‘unofficial Wagner Symphony’. This concert was a revelation in showing how that work – my favourite non-vocal Mahler – had inspired Shostakovich’s behemoth of a symphony, his Fourth, composed between September 1935 and May 1936. During this time Pravda published the infamous editorial ‘Muddle Instead of Music’, a Joseph Stalin-inspired denunciation of the composer that was specifically aimed at his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Despite this and the pervading political atmosphere of the time, Shostakovich finished the symphony and planned its première, before changing his mind during rehearsals and withdrawing the work. It was not heard publicly until given its first performance at the end of 1961 by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin.

The symphony requires a lot of musicians to play it and I suspect there were well over 100 in BBC Symphony Orchestra, crammed together on the limited Barbican platform. Immediately I must mention how committed and tireless were the efforts from all sections of the orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s twirling baton. Shostakovich’s Fourth is in three movements lasting about an hour; the outer ones last 25 minutes or more, and the middle one only just eight or nine minutes. The opening Allegretto poco moderato is the least ‘accessible’, almost seeming to be a quixotic fantasia of free musical thinking. It is all very martial and furious especially during the tumultuous fugato that saw some wonderful bowing from the strings. There was an isolated cry of protest from someone higher in the hall at the start of the second movement, the themes of which strongly recall the Scherzos from Mahler’s Second and Seventh Symphonies and contains some Ländler-like material that will also pervade the finale.

The shadow of Mahler looms largest over the concluding Largo – Allegro from its opening minutes onwards. This is the movement that makes sitting through the rest of it worthwhile. Mahlerians will instantly recognise funeral marches with the tramp-tramp of the basses, the dance rhythms, the general chaos and the elegiac trombone solo (the wonderful Helen Vollam). As the energetic work of John Chimes and Christopher Hind on their Timpani subsided along with the musical storm, the ominous lull that ensues ended with Gareth Bimson’s haunting trumpet call – another direct quote from Mahler Seven. (Stephen Johnson’s programme note allows this movement ‘a hint of Mahler’; in fact it is much more than that. It has been recorded that friends of Shostakovich often saw Mahler’s Seventh Symphony on his piano in the years preceding his symphony’s composition – and the Barbican audience should have been able to read about this.)

I would have enjoyed the first half of the programme even more had I known about the Mahlerian significance of the Shostakovich I would hear later. Probably unintentionally, this was the type of concert that should have been available to concertgoers more often during the composer’s recent anniversary years; some modern music inspired by Mahler, an original work of his and something by one of his contemporaries or followers that he influenced. The opening ‘world première’ (a BBC commission) was Bohortha (Seven Pieces for Orchestra) by the British composer, Michael Zev Gordon. It comprised seven continuous movements with only a slight pause between them; overall it lasted about 20 minutes and so no ‘piece’ (despite each being given individual titles) hung around long enough to create any real impression. It was more like sketches for a more substantial work that will never see the light of day. I wish most twenty-first century classical compositions did not sound so similar. They often employ huge orchestras and eclectic percussion, playing disconnected themes … and especially common – as here – is the sight of the xylophone being bowed! The composer admits to quoting from composers of the twentieth-century in the first two movements (Lost Worlds and Broken Pieces) and indeed the first few notes of the (in)famous Adagietto from Mahler‘s Fifth Symphony ends the first of these. These are to occur again at the opening of the following Ancore Venezia (think about it and this will not surprise you!) before being deconstructed. After an inconsequential central movement (Still Centre) there is the wistful, hectic, On Gossamer Wings followed by Terrifying Angel that was supposed to reflect the composer’s Jewish ancestry but did not seem to sound all that ‘Jewish’. In the final movement (Bohortha – a tiny hamlet in Cornwall) the turbulence reminded me of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. As Gordon wrote in his programme note, only after this ‘does the calm return. Serenity is a hard-won thing.’ So too is peace of mind about this sort of new music despite very committed playing by the BBC SO urged onwards by Saraste.

Thank goodness the wonderful Alice Coote made me quickly forget how disappointed I was with her singing of the Rückert-Lieder during the recent low-key Kathleen Ferrier Centenary Celebration Concert at the Wigmore Hall (review). Clearly the occasion overwhelmed her then and the pianist also never gave her the help she needed. Here Alice Coote’s warm mezzo voice spun an ethereal thread of warm, golden, tone that she moderated to match perfectly the individual sentiments of each of the five songs. She lingeringly caressed the word ‘Duft’ when it occurred during Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft and I am sure I scented the fragrance myself! The exquisite breath control here was repeated during the phrases ‘Nicht konnt’ ich sie entscheiden’ (I could not resolve it) and ‘Herr! Über Tod und Leben’ (Lord, over death and life) during a heartrending Um Mitternacht. She brought great depth of feeling to Liebst du um Schönheit and it is a long time since I have heard the sentiments of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen expressed so intimately and with such naked emotion. I certainly have never heard these Rückert-Lieder sung so well by a British singer. I must not forget some high-quality playing by the BBC SO and Saraste’s impeccable pacing. Alice Coote’s triumph with these songs is that, dramatically, she lives every word of them and – as listener’s – we do too. With her great mezzo rival, Sarah Connolly, having a great success as Fricka in the current Ring Cycles at Covent Garden, I hope it is not too long now before Ms Coote tries out some of the Wagnerian roles in which her voice would excel.

Jim Pritchard

Details of future BBC Symphony Orchestra concerts can be found here.