Simply Superb Mahler from Søndergård

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Huw Watkins, Mahler: Alina Ibragimova (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 28.6.2013. (PCG)

Huw Watkins – Violin Concerto
Mahler – Symphony No 5

In the early years of the Mahler revival in the 1960s there soon emerged two contrary schools of thought about the interpretation of his symphonies, best illustrated by the extremes of Solti and Haitink. On the one hand, we had the former bringing out all the quirks and oddities in the scoring, sometimes losing sight of the whole in the process; on the other hand, we had an attempt to impose symphonic logic on Mahler’s wayward inspiration even if this meant the sacrifice of individual effects along the way. In more recent years conductors have attempted to find a synthesis between these two styles of interpretation. But surely the former is truer to Mahler’s intentions; even by Mahler’s standards the score of the Fifth Symphony bristles with precise instructions for performance. One which causes particular headaches is his frequent requirement for “Schalltrichter auf!” – for the horns and woodwind to raise the bells of their instruments so that they point straight at the audience. Players dislike this, because it makes it harder for them to keep in tune, contrary to all their training and instincts; but Mahler’s stipulations make sense because the effect in live performance can be startlingly dramatic. Here Søndergård encouraged his players to do exactly what Mahler asks, and the results were superb. The horns temporised slightly – to point the bells of their instruments straight upwards means that they cannot adjust pitch using their hands; and given the already great difficulties with which Mahler confronts his players, the compromise is understandable.

Otherwise Søndergård’s performance – once an unfortunate rhythmic fluff in the opening bar was out of the way – was simply superb. This orchestra is on a real high at the moment in late romantic music (their performance of Also sprach Zarathustra a few weeks back was also generally magnificent) and their playing here brought out time after time subtle effects in the orchestration which so often tend to go unremarked. In a word, Søndergård gave Mahler the credit for knowing exactly what this precise composer and conductor was doing; and the results sounded both surprisingly modern and fresh. There was no lingering over the Adagietto, given as a simple love song rather than a mourning threnody; and the strings played with full warm tone and a high degree of virtuosity throughout. The performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and those who missed it can hear it during the next week on the BBC i-player. They will be in for a treat.

Before the interval we had a performance of Huw Watkins’s Violin Concerto, which was well received by an audience who had presumably come for the Mahler. This concerto was premièred at the Proms in 2010 by the same soloist as in this performance. Listening again beforehand to the Proms performance conducted by Edward Gardner, one noted how much the balance between soloist and orchestra there was assisted by the microphones. Indeed the solo part is of such fiendish difficulty that one wonders who else would be prepared to take it on. With the figurations subsumed into the orchestral texture the work certainly sounded more unified (the live broadcast sound, again bringing the soloist into the foreground through close microphone placement, does not convey this) but the lyrical passages ideally needed more sheer force to sound over the busy orchestration in the hall. But in the slow movement the soloist sounded more passionate, as well as more delicate, than in her Proms performance; one only wanted a dash of sheer Barber-like abandonment, although the music was not a million miles away from that neo-romantic masterpiece. Unfortunately the busy finale, launched by vehement snap pizzicatos from the lower strings, remains somewhat of a let-down, rather a mechanical conclusion than a triumph over adversity, and not a patch on the concluding movement of Watkins’s later Violin Concertino, more sympathetically written for the soloist and avoiding the problems of balance that were all too evident here.

Interestingly the BBC have scheduled a broadcast of the Concertino for 29 June in their Hear and now series, recorded from the performance given in the Hoddinott Hall Cardiff as long ago as last November and reviewed then by myself for Seen and Heard. Comparisons between the two works will be found instructive; and I personally feel that the later Concertino, largely because the balance between soloist and accompaniment is better judged, is the better work. One notes however with surprise that the schedule for the Hear and now broadcast of the concert omits the most interesting work on that programme, the first performance of Byzantium by the young Joseph Davies, a piece that demonstrated real potential and understanding of the orchestra. One hopes that the BBC schedulers have not simply disregarded the piece because it does not fall readily into the superannuated definition of ‘new music’ and that the recording is scheduled for broadcast on another occasion.

Paul Corfield Godfrey