United Kingdom Strauss, Mahler Barry Douglas (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (conductor) Barbican Hall, London 25.9.2013 (RB)
Strauss – Burleske for Piano and Orchestra in D Minor (1885-86)
Mahler – Symphony No. 6 in A Minor (1903-06)
Thomas Dausgaard, the Chief Conductor of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, was making his debut with the LSO at this concert. He was joined by Northern Irish pianist, Barry Douglas, who was hanging up his conductor’s baton for the evening.
The Strauss Burleske is a highly virtuosic work which was originally written for Hans von Bülow. The latter complained that the work was unplayable and involved too many wide stretches (Bülow had relatively small hands for a pianist). Eugen d’Albert subsequently took up the challenge and, after further revisions by Strauss, gave the first performance of the work in 1890. This performance opened in an arresting way with Dausgaard making the most of the dynamic contrast between the opening motif on timpani and the response by the full orchestra. Douglas has recorded the work with Janowski; he appeared completely relaxed at the keyboard and was well on top of the pyrotechnics – rapid octaves and glittering passagework were dispatched with ease. I was struck by the lightness of Douglas’ playing which was crystalline and delicate but without being precious. He characterised Strauss’ gambolling capers and high jinks brilliantly – the playing was at turns roughish, witty, coy and coquettish while the difficult runs seemed to scamper along. Dausgaard provided a flexible and responsive accompaniment and it was clear that he and Douglas were at one in their understanding of and approach to this work. Douglas launched into the final cadenza, which was played at breakneck speed. The wit of the ending was nicely underlined by both pianist and orchestra before the piece finally vanished into thin air.
Alban Berg described Mahler’s Sixth Symphony as “the only Sixth, despite the Pastoral”. Much has been made of the tragic overtones of the work and Stephen Johnston’s stimulating programme notes were highly informative about this subject and drew specific attention to the influence of Nietzsche on Mahler. Nietzsche saw Greek tragedy as one of the greatest human achievements and said the Greeks had been able to look “with bold eyes into the dreadful destructive turmoil of so-called history as well as into the cruelty of nature”. In Nietzsche’s view, it was only through facing the horror and meaningless cruelty of existence that one could “say ‘Yes’ to life”. Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, with its three great hammer blows of fate, is in some way a distillation of Nietzsche’s ideas.
The LSO showed they meant business from the outset and the driven march theme was delivered with dramatic power and intensity. Dausgaard exercised taut rhythmic control and exposed the audience to an exceptionally wide range of dynamics. The second subject – essentially a portrait of Alma Mahler – was rapturous and ecstatic while Dausgaard captured beautifully the stillness of the central section with the cow bells and celeste. This really was an evocation of “the last terrestrial sounds penetrating into the remote solitude of mountain peaks”. There is always a lot of debate around the order in which the middle two movements are played but in this performance the Andante moderato came first. In this movement Dausgaard displayed excellent judgement in his choice of tempi and he coaxed a gorgeous palette of warm colours from the orchestra. The opening theme in the strings had a silky sheen and the transition to the solo oboe was absolutely magical. All the strands of sound were delicately woven together and the song-like elements and poignancy of the music shone through.
The pounding march rhythms return with the scherzo and here I was impressed with the way percussion and woodwind brought out the grotesque and sardonic elements of the music. In the trio with its famous ‘Altvaterisch’ marking, the strings were fastidious in their articulation of the limping figure. The finale is an extraordinary piece of music in which Mahler’s fateful hammer blows make their appearance. The opening chords in the brass were grim and full of foreboding. Dausgaard succeeded in simultaneously outlining a coherent musical narrative and unleashing the talents of the LSO. The result was a brilliant and unbridled maelstrom of sound with the LSO giving us some exceptional and highly virtuosic playing. The brass were particularly impressive in conveying the raw and primal nature of the music while the final hammer blow was truly terrifying.
An outstanding debut from Dausgaard and fabulous playing from the LSO.