United Kingdom Mahler and Lutosławski: Ulrich Heinen (cello), Birmingham Festival Orchestra / Jamie Phillips (conductor), Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham, 30.8.2014. (GR).
Lutosławski: Cello Concerto
Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor
Those who put together the programmes that grace our concert halls do not always get it right and often short change its audience; this one at the Adrian Boult Hall in the Birmingham Conservatoire complex (although due to be re-housed in Summer 2017) gave excellent value. What do you pair with the sizeable sixth Mahler symphony? Musical director Jamie Phillips and the team behind the Birmingham Festival Orchestra chose another challenging work – Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto. Given the make-up of the BFO – enthusiastic young professionals and students from around the country – together with Phillips’ passion for modern music, goes some way to explaining this choice. Formed in 2011, the commitments of BFO players limits their time together, but judging by this concert on Aug 30th any restrictions to rehearsal time failed to reveal any lack of cohesion. With competition for permanent careers in the music business so intense, it is hoped that many of the musicians will progress in line with their ability. The success of the evening’s music was also down to the two named performers from opposite ends of the experience spectrum: Phillips, the talented twenty-three-year-old Assistant Conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, and Ulrich Heinen, the cello soloist, co-founder of the ground-breaking Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and principal cellist and section leader of the CBSO for an incredible twenty-eight years until 2012.
The Lutosławski Cello Concerto opened proceedings. Created in 1970 with Mstislav Rostropovich in mind, the virtuoso told the composer not to worry about the technicalities required by the soloist. However when presented with the score, Rostropovich found that after thirty years of playing his instrument, he had to learn new fingering! That alternative techniques were required was confirmed by Heinen after his brilliant performance of this fiendishly difficult piece. It was a welcome return for a well-known face among the fresh-faced potential of the BFO – a winning combination.
The work’s four movements are through-composed. The four minute Introduction for cello alone had the air of an instrumental sonata to me rather than any traditional concerto. Its initially repeated D’s have an indifférente marking and indeed it was an almost casual beginning from Heinen, yet one with a detectable pulse to the music, alive, but not sure where to go. Such musings were rudely interrupted by the ‘irascible’ trumpets, just as the composer envisaged; the orchestra had begun their disruptive process that inhabits the adjacent Four Episodes movement. There was an aggression that the orchestra never relinquished – the physical might of Phillips’ band pitted against the indomitable will of Heinen. All conversational attempts from whatever section Phillips markedly pointed at, failed to resolve the situation. The strings led by Michael Jones did provide some hint that harmony might ensue with their molto espressivo, dolente mood in the Cantilenathird movement, but their attempts at any sustained pastoral phase were again overpowered by the bombastic brass section, ably supported by the percussion and woodwind. In the Finale this confrontation came to a dramatic head. But the cello refused to succumb and the repeated A’s in the coda suggested to me that he was the victor – overall the slides, pizzicato, scamperings and contemplations of Heinen proved an unassailable foe.
In many ways the consternation inherent in the Lutosławski piece provided the ideal forerunner to Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A Minor. HisSixth portrays a drama more formidable and tragic than in any of his other nine symphonies. Mahler disliked nicknames; I do, and they tend to stick and to me the ‘Tragic’ is apt. Like all great works of art it asks questions; here humanity and its very condition is on the agenda and unlike many of Mahler’s other works offers no catharsis. This is somewhat strange since at the time he began composing it in 1903 Mahler’s private life was possibly at its most content. In this context the work might even be labelled prophetic in view of the personal heartbreaks on the horizon. The premiere was appropriately at Essen, the home of Germany’s iron and steel engineering, the smelting and forging industries that manufactured the armaments for WWI; this gave the work another pseudonym, the ‘Krupp-Symphonie’.
Phillips introduced an immediate urgency to his tempo in the Allegro energico first movement, not over-menacing or excessively pithy as in some interpretations, but he effectively galvanised his troops and retained the militaristic undertones. I loved the contrast he brought out as Alma’s theme was introduced, providing warmth whilst still able to capture the Schwungvoll (spirited) marking. I thought the cowbells might have been a little more prominent – the link between this section and the Alpine setting from where Mahler got so much inspiration only being partially realised. As the martial drones returned, Phillips’ attack on the Heftig, aber markig (Vehement, but pithy) score direction was perceptively more threatening and relentless. The balance between woodwinds and brass in the Recapitulation was just about right and the Coda gave the movement an upbeat closure: our ‘hero’ was very much alive and kicking.
One variable that has stimulated much discussion since Essen, is the order of the second and third movements. On this occasion Phillips used the Urtext edition of 2011 which I understand states that their sequence of Andante/Scherzo was the way Mahler always performed and wanted it. I must admit I prefer it to be Scherzo/Andante: this continues the thrust of the Allegro while allowing the Andante to offer maximum contrast to the Finale when it comes – a greater fall for our hero. Phillips painted a typical Mahlerian landscape in his Andante, full of pastoral images, displaying a composer at one with nature and his soul, although at times I thought an even lighter touch might have been employed (it was as if Phillips never wanted the tragedy to completely go away). Several orchestral members shone here, notably the oboe of Henry Clay and flautist Katie Miner; they led their sections well, whilst combining beautifully for a ravishing duet.
Phillips never allowed the tension in the Scherzo to drag as the Wuchtig mood returned. The percussion team produced some striking resonances, demonstrating their versatility on xylophone, triangle, tam-tam and multiple drum combinations; together with some Berg-like blasts by the brass these were twentieth century sounds, illustrative of how Mahler had moved on from his more conventional Fifth. The Altvaterisch (Old-fashioned) trios came across well, mimicking the playful hops and leaps that reminded Alma of her children frolicking in the spring.
Yet our hero’s fall was not complete, plummeting still further in the fourth movement Finale. Fate awaits and there is nothing pretty about it – a grim and bleak tone was adopted by Phillips and the BFO, who I thought lasted the tiring thirty minutes admirably, coming as they did on top of the previous fifty. They were all stars! But special mention must go to the vibrant horn section led by Beetung Goo (who fully deserved the acknowledgement Phillips gave him at the end) incisive in the section leading up to the first hammer blow. This ‘instrument’ was effectively wielded twice, although I thought the sound was a rather solid one. In between the two mighty blows by this percussionist (capable of ringing the bell on any fairground) all hell broke loose; the contest between our hero and his destiny was at its zenith – a veritable ‘Hammer House of Horror’ episode with all 100+ members of the BFO involved, Jones leading from the front as he ought. The final ensemble crash, although expected, was as climactic as ever and the fade away profound, inevitable and spell-binding.
The Sixth is Mahler’s most classically conceived symphony with four movements and one basic key, and perhaps his greatest purely orchestral piece. Deryk Barker summed it up with Life’s a bitch, then you die. It does have its lighter moments, but overall I thought Phillips’ emphasis was on the dark, an abandonment of hope. If there is better under twenty-five conductor around the UK at the moment, let me know!