Masterly Mahler from Jac van Steen and the CBSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schoenberg, Mahler:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Jac van Steen (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 14.11.2012. (JQ)

Schoenberg:  Five Pieces for Orchestra
Mahler:  Symphony No 7

I’ve previously seen Jac van Steen conduct Mahler symphonies. He led a tremendous performance of the ‘Resurrection’ during the 2010 Three Choirs Festival (review) and was just as impressive with the CBSO in the Sixth Symphony just a few months later (review). So I was very keen to hear him direct what is held by many to be one of Mahler’s more challenging scores to comprehend.

As a prelude to the symphony we heard Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. Though composed in 1909 this score was not premièred until 1912. I have to admit that I’ve always found this score, like so much else of Schoenberg, a closed book. I can’t easily discern many points of reference in the pieces and, candidly, can’t ‘get’ what the composer was seeking to put across. I was somewhat encouraged, therefore, to read in Calum MacDonald’s excellent programme note that Schoenberg himself found the experience of writing this work cathartic. As Mr. MacDonald put it “This firestorm of creative energy…was traumatic for him, not least because he was entering an unmapped terrain, with no theoretical compass to guide him, nor predecessors to follow.” He further told us that Schoenberg was writing “at feverish speed, trusting only in his intuition, in his inner ear, in the rightness of the impulses that drove him.” Reading that, I didn’t feel quite so bad at my failure to come to grips with this score.

My judgement of the performance, therefore, must be seen against that caveat. However, though I may not understand the music I hope I can recognise a good performance when I see and hear one and this seemed to me to be a very good performance indeed. I’ve commented previously on the clarity and incisiveness of Jac van Steen’s conducting. His beat is as clear as you could wish to see and he’s excellent at giving cues for key entries. I should think orchestras find him a dream to follow. This exemplary technique was on display throughout this concert – and very necessary, given the works on the programme. Clarity was essential during the Schoenberg. Mr van Steen opted for the original 1909 scoring – Schoenberg later reduced the orchestration somewhat – and this meant that a vast orchestra was on parade for a work lasting less than twenty minutes. One of the most remarkable features of this work is that despite the immense forces for which Schoenberg wrote, the textures are very often refined and delicate; indeed, almost chamber-like. There seemed to me to be a splendid realisation of Schoenberg’s demands in this performance. There was great precision in the playing during the first piece while in the autumnal second piece the quiet playing of the orchestra bespoke expert individual and corporate control. In this second piece van Steen balanced the textures with fastidious care. I really appreciated the refined soft playing in the mysterious, nocturnal – or so it seemed – third piece and in the last two pieces there was much evidence of attention to detail over Schoenberg’s phantasmagorical imaginings. I’m not sure if I’ll ever love this work – I rather doubt it – but this performance succeeded in opening my ears where others have not.

Mahler’s Seventh, composed between 1904 and 1905, is, like the Schoenberg, not an easy work to comprehend – though, as tonight’s performance proved in spades, making the effort is worthwhile. My colleague, Jim Pritchard, has argued cogently that there are many points of contact between the Seventh and Die Meistersinger. Gavin Plumley, in tonight’s programme notes, pointed out that many see the Seventh as a transition after the Sixth – but then didn’t really say “to what”. Leaving out the Eighth, which is sui generis, there were several instances in Jac van Steen’s performance when I felt that, at least in terms of the harmonies and orchestration, the Seventh acts as a bridge between the Sixth and the Ninth symphonies.

His reading of the substantial first movement was most impressive. The music has several elements, including a vigorous march and an extended and highly romantic slower section. It can easily become episodic but it seemed to me that van Steen held the structure together very convincingly. The slower episode, which grows from an expansive violin melody, was generously phrased. On another day one might have felt the music in these pages was being stretched just a bit too broadly but such was the conviction of van Steen’s approach – and so compelling was the CBSO’s playing – that no such doubts arose.

The three central movements, two of which bear the title ‘Nachtmusik’, all contain music of the night but each nocturnal vision is different. The ghostly night march of Nachtmusik I, with its echoing calls on various instruments, was splendidly done. Mahler’s scoring is vividly imaginative here and van Steen’s attention to detail paid off in an expert rendition of the movement – including, at one point, a percussionist dispatched to play very distant cowbells from somewhere in the backstage recesses of Symphony Hall: that was most effective. The weird gothic shrieks and irregular rhythms of the central scherzo were expertly delivered. One had an aural vision of ghouls, goblins and other creatures of the night. This movement was vividly played.

The mood of the symphony changes decisively and positively in Nachtmusik II, a warm and affectionate piece. Here Mahler reinforces his vast orchestra with mandolin and guitar. These instruments were carefully positioned on the platform so that their contributions were audible. There was great refinement in the CBSO’s playing, not least from leader, Laurence Jackson. Fired by this new mood of positivity the finale erupts in bright C major. This movement has often been criticised and there’s no doubt that it can seem weak and/or ramshackle. Jac van Steen’s solution was a simple but effective one: he really went for it, galvanising the orchestra into playing that had huge energy and high spirits. The movement is, by turns, delicate and tumultuous and both sides of the music were superbly delivered in a vibrant sharply etched performance.

With the CBSO on top form and an expert conductor at the helm I enjoyed this performance of Mahler’s Seventh greatly and got more from it than has been the case on most occasions that I’ve heard the work. The CBSO seemed to relish Mr van Steen’s work on their podium: I hope it won’t be long before he’s invited back to Birmingham.

Only one thing got in the way of otherwise complete enjoyment: the persistent coughing amongst the audience. I’m sorry to say it but the Symphony Hall audience is one of the most ill-disciplined that I know in this respect. People seem to make no effort to stifle coughs and, inevitably, the most bronchial contributions are reserved for the quietest passages. It must be as dispiriting for the performers as it is for the rest of the audience. It’s high time the management made specific requests about this matter to the audience in the same way that they seek – and appear to get – cooperation in the matter of mobile phones.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard until 21 November by clicking here.

John Quinn