Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia on Fine Form

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Britten, Mozart and Mahler: Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 24.2.2013. (JPr)

Britten: Quatre chansons françaises
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467
Mahler: Symphony No.4

Significant musical anniversaries are coming thick and fast these days. Not long after a ‘celebration’ of Mahler that went across two recent years, in 2013 it is time to laud Britten, Verdi and Wagner, and soon it will be Richard Strauss’s turn. For this concert in his centenary year the Philhamonia Orchestra gave us one of Britten’s earliest and most ambitious compositions. His Quatre chansons françaises were composed in June 1928 and he had completed the full score by August of that year, before his 15th birthday. The texts came from poems by Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine he discovered in a 1924 Book of French Verse and the songs reflect the impact of his lessons with Frank Bridge, which had begun in the autumn of 1927. Britten dedicated the work to his parents on the occasion of their twenty-seventh wedding anniversary.

There was a posthumous performance of the four songs in 1980 and they were published for the first time two years later. These are very impressive and show someone who – though only ‘a young boy’ – had astonishing confidence. They use a wide orchestral palette to great effect and there are strong echoes here and there of Debussy and Wagner, especially the latter’s Siegfried Idyll. I suspect they were composed for a tenor but the young British soprano, Elizabeth Watts, gave a compelling account of the songs, performing – and not just singing – them. Ms Watts was so involved with the texts that she was visibly moved after Hugo’s L’enfance, a work that prefaces all Britten’s later preoccupations with lost innocence. In the case of final one, Verlaine’s Chanson d’automne, her voice rose at the end with all the fragility of the dead leaf she was singing about, being tossed about in the wind. Throughout Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra provided a ravishing accompaniment to Britten’s intriguing juvenilia.

Mozart completed his Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K467, in March 1785 four weeks after the completion of the previous D minor concerto, K466. It was a very prolific and successful period for him and these were two of eleven piano concertos written within the space of only two years. During that time there was also the première of his opera The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart wasn’t writing symphonies at the time and many have argued he probably just didn’t have the time. Indeed as repeated in the programme note, his father, Leopold, commented on a visit to his son at the time ‘We never go to bed before one o’clock, and I never get up before nine. We lunch at two or half past … Every day there are concerts; and the whole time is given up to teaching, music, composing and so forth.’ Tamara Stefanovich’s engaging performance was alert to all the concerto’s changing moods and emotions. There are probably no hidden depths to reveal here but she brought a classical beauty to the elegiac Andante – well-known from the Swedish film ‘Elvira Madigan’. During the bright sonata-rondo where the orchestra and soloists bat themes backwards and forwards as if it is part of a game of musical Ping-Pong, Ms Stefanovich nimbly rushed up Mozart’s scales to bring this often ebullient work to suitably a joyous end.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is the watershed between those that drew their inspiration from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and the often brooding and tempestuous works with which his life and career ended. According to many commentators, including Henri-Louis de La Grange, the Fourth Symphony’s simplicity is deliberate. Mahler uses a standard symphonic technique yet transforms and enriches it through his febrile imagination.

Mahler’s original intentions for his Fourth were as a six movement ‘humoresque’ where instrumental sections and vocal ones would alternate. What he left us eventually, he considered, takes us from earth to heaven. He said that the atmosphere of the symphony is like the sky, where the blue is always blue but which can cloud over or darken and yet will always reappear seemingly renewed and fresh. His first movement, with the wonderful slow jog-trotting sleigh bells, has a traditionally formal structure (a modified sonata) grounded in Mozart and Bach. His second movement, a sinister Scherzo that is relieved by two trios, is a ‘dance of death’, where a solo violin is played (excellently here by Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay) tuned a whole tone higher than normal (A-E-B-F#) and thus produces a thin, spectral sound. Further than this, Mahler’s instruction wants it to sound ‘like a peasant fiddle’. The third slow movement, contains a set of variations built upon two contrasting but related themes, and here Mahler considered this either to reflect his mother’s sad face – always loving in spite of almost constant suffering – or as ‘ a vision of a tombstone on which was carved an image of the departed, with folded arms, in eternal sleep’.

The work’s only radical change from the ‘standard’ symphonic form is left to the finale – although everything has been signalling the way the music would go through the development of earlier themes. Here we have a song written in 1892 which was originally conceived to be the seventh movement of the Third Symphony. Sleigh bells return and the soprano sings ‘Das himmlische Leben’ (Heavenly Life) that Mahler wished to be sung ‘with childlike and serene expression, absolutely without parody’. Here we have a traditional rondo but no rousing conclusion as we have instead, this naïve reflection on the ‘joys’ of heaven including the activities of the ‘butcher Herod.’ As the child falls silent the music fades and all we hear is the tolling of the harp. It seems as though Mahler is saying to us, ‘If you need to ask what all this means, only a child (or perhaps those who have a child’s sense of wonder) can tell you the answer.’

Even more curious as to what the Fourth means is the question of how Mahler heard it himself and therefore wanted it performed. We have no complete recordings to resolve this but we do have his piano rolls from 1905 which include the final movement of this symphony. Despite the composer’s instruction above and a further one saying ‘It is of the greatest importance that the singer be extremely discreetly accompanied’ his playing, even allowing for the fact that he may not have been a great pianist, is a trifle eccentric. He ignores many of his own markings in the score so that it all seems like a free interpretation, it is full of strange rubato and the vocal line is exposed and unsupported. Curiously, he seems, therefore, to violate all the instructions for interpretation he imposes on others.

For me this performance of the Fourth Symphony had a unity and logical coherence I have only rarely experienced before, notably from Gergiev. Vladimir Ashkenazy looks rather quixotic on the podium because of his jerky mannerisms but his reading was Romantic and lucid – neither too over-wrought nor over-analysed. The Philharmonia were their usual reliable selves and there were a surprising number of very young players in their ranks. There was an admirable lyrical capriciousness to the first movement. The Scherzo was appropriately full of both its required elements, rustic charm and sinister under currents. The Adagio was impassioned, beautiful and serene with wonderful work from the strings and horns. The entry of the Elizabeth Watts, returning as the soloist for the fourth movement, was handled especially well to ensure that there was no unnecessary applause and although the tempi did challenge her somewhat, her bright sound otherwise matched the guileless mood of the song perfectly.


Jim Pritchard


For more about the Philharmonia Orchestra’s forthcoming concerts visit