Mahler’s Birthday Celebrated in London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Pearson, Beethoven and Mahler: Mine Doğantan Dack (piano), I Maestri Orchestra, George Hlawiczka and Sybille Werner (conductors). St John’s Smith Square, London, 7.7.2013. (JPr)

Valerie PearsonMurnau(2009)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.5 ‘Emperor’
Mahler -Symphony No.1 ‘Titan’ (1893 Hamburg version)

This was an intriguing concert put on by the I Maestri Orchestra on the anniversary of Mahler’s birth and sponsored by Société Gustav Mahler de Genève, the Gustav Mahler Society of New York, and the Gustav Mahler Society UK. Sadly St John’s, Smith Square – though it is where I Maestri regularly perform – failed to draw much of an audience for this event and it deserved better. There was a lot going on this day, notably Wimbledon, and it was also the hottest day of the year and it is perhaps not surprising that, even if they were aware it was on, London’s Mahlerians probably had better things to do. By the time they performed the Mahler symphony and about 70 players were crammed onto St John’s limited performance space, there were not too many more in the rest of the hall.

I have put on events at St John’s and know its limitations: it has been spruced up since I was last there and its café and restaurant still provide a cosy and intimate place for a pre-concert drink or meal and can be visited even if you are not attending a concert. I had forgotten that, at least to my ears, it has good acoustics and when I shut my eyes during the Beethoven or Mahler, there was a spaciousness to the sound worthy of a bigger venue. However I did worry about all the musicians on the platform, I had the feeling that if one slipped from their chair, like dominos, it would start a chain reaction!

I owe much of the following analysis to Sybille Werner and Joel Lazar’s programme note but it is worth repeating for those who were not there as Mahler’s 1893 ‘Hamburg’ version of his First Symphony has not been heard in London in recent memory. It is an intermediate stage between the work as it was heard at its 1889 Budapest première and the First Symphony as we are more familiar with and, as such, provides a fascinating glimpse into Mahler`s creative process. The ‘Blumine’ movement is often heard, sometimes interpolated into a performance or by itself, though Mahler removed it – and suppressed the title ‘Titan’ (after Jean Paul’s novel) – after his 1894 performance in Weimar. This 1893 ‘Hamburg’ score differs from the final version in several important aspects. For one, it calls for a smaller orchestra – three of each woodwind instrument instead of four later, four horns instead of seven, one set of timpani instead of two. Mahler strove throughout his life to clarify the contrapuntal nature of his music by thinning out textures. This earlier state of his First Symphony, where there are numerous audible changes in orchestration, gives us something that is more thickly scored, thus producing a lusher sound, with the stark interaction of lines typical of his later work tempered by supporting harmonies.

There is much that is familiar and some that was not; the most obvious differences are near the beginning of the first movement with muted horns playing a fanfare we usually hear played by clarinets, the famous double bass solo in the Funeral March is doubled by a solo cello, and the cellos and basses at the start of the Scherzo are doubled by timpani. In addition, there are fewer tempo changes and dynamic indications, no repeats in the first movement and Scherzo, and extra bars at the end of the piece. In fact for me there is a coherence to this version of the First Symphony that is unusual for Mahler! This is not the place to debate any similarity with Hans Rott’s Symphony in E that is often mentioned in relation to this symphony but I wonder if this is any stronger here than in the version the composer eventually left us with – I am not sufficient of a musicologist to know but I would be interested to be told.

If many things might have been different then much was the same; the soft beginning that Mahler called ‘a sound of nature’, the the allusions to some  vocal and other music of his, firstly through ‘Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld’ from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, then the incidental music from Der Trompeter von Säkkingen and  the song Hans und Grete. Later we recognise Mahler’s use of Frère Jacques (known in the German speaking world as ‘Brother Martin’). It is used mournfully and then unwinds lugubriously through the entire orchestra to become a grotesquely distorted dance with some klezmer music where Mahler ‘celebrates’ his Jewish roots. The Romantic triumphal ending to the symphony is still there and now more than ever seems to be a rumbustious evocation of youthful unrequited love. However, underlying this is that Mahler is never letting us forget that almost any heartbreak can be overcome and he would return to both these themes many times in his other compositions.

I Maestri is a London-based ensemble clearly worth supporting for their admirable aims as an international organisation that allows talented young conductors to develop their skills through a programme of workshops, masterclasses and public concerts. It was established in 2001 and allows these conductors from all around the world to work with professional musicians from the capital city. They clearly support new composers too as the first work on this programme was Valerie Pearson’s 2009 Murnau apparently named both after the mountain resort near Munich where the artist, Kandinsky, lived and that he featured in his paintings. Apparently one particular 1910 painting Murnau – The Garden II hung upside down in Valerie Pearson’s work as she composed the work. I would like to say that this short piece was any different from many other quixotic, droning and percussion-heavy, modern compositions, but it wasn’t. Nevertheless the musicians of I Maestri’s commitment to what they were playing under George Hlawiczka’s baton seemed admirable.

Maestro Hlawiczka returned with soloist Mine Doğantan Dack for Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto. She attacked the opening flourish with bravado, there then followed a performance of much stylistic assurance and a certain stentorian style. Occasionally, the cosiness of all concerned on the platform worked against some of the piano passages when all were playing loudly together, and sometimes the overall impression was something rather too imperious to be imperial.

The conductor and musicologist, Sybille Werner, took over the conducting duties for the Mahler symphony as she is an expert in her own right on the composer’s music and has helped the renowned Mahler scholar Prof Henry-Louis de La Grange since 2005 with his research. She led the orchestra through the 50 minute work with a calm assurance. If I sensed a little uncertainty here and there I think that is only to be expected as I doubt there had been that much preparation for this performance. It was all a little too respectful but I Maestri mostly played much better than I had expected they might do. There was all the brassy euphoria in the triumph of the final movement conclusion I wanted, so I was ultimately pleased that Sybille Werner and her accomplished musicians had given me the opportunity to experience some of Mahler’s first thoughts on this, his First Symphony.

Jim Pritchard