An Unforgettable Evening with Gianandrea Noseda and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Liszt and Mahler: Alice Sara Ott (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 15.2.2015. (JPr)

Liszt – Piano Concerto No 2 in A major
Mahler Symphony No 6 in A minor

I always have difficulty every December actually saying that any particular event I have attended to is my ‘best of the year’. In 2015 that might change because this London Symphony Orchestra evening of Liszt and Mahler was possibly the best purely orchestral concert I can ever remember!

Liszt drafted his Second Piano Concerto in 1839, several years before premièring the First Concerto in E-flat major. After several revisions it had its first performance in 1857 even though Liszt – who was only conducting – had not finished tinkering with it even then. Presumably we heard the final 1861 version though Alison Bullock’s programme note did not address this issue. It was probably Liszt’s final thoughts on the matter because when the orchestra – as Ms Bullock describes – ‘embarks on a “devil’s ride” ’ these tutti passages occasionally reminded me of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer a work Liszt had – by then -conducted in Weimar.

The Second Piano Concerto is more like a typical Liszt tone poem and is basically variations on a theme with the piano often acting as just another instrument in the orchestra. Gianandrea Noseda, the LSO and the wonderful soloist Alice Sara Ott, the young German-Japanese pianist, gave an eloquently shaped and exhilarating account of the concerto. Details emerged with percussive clarity from Ms Ott, a mesmerising, hyperactive, barefooted, wraith-like figure at the keyboard. Obviously the work’s most ferocious passages held no fears for her because of her impeccable technique and a range of colours and expressive shadings that was consistently immensely impressive.

The string section was reduced in numbers befitting Liszt’s often chamber-like orchestration and the concerto began in ethereal softness from the woodwind before near the end the composer drew together all the threads of his thematic transformations for an exciting final march. Despite all the bombast in the six sections, which are played as a single movement, there was a more delicate and poetic Allegro moderato that was notable for a plangent, subtly beautiful, cello solo from Rebecca Gilliver. Alice Sara Ott returned to the platform after a prolonged ovation for an encore and announced how ‘After almost destroying the piano I would like to play something softer’ and Robert Schumann’s Second Romance provided a perfect idyll of repose between what had preceded it and what was to follow.

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is riddled with mystery and contradictions. We start with the nickname ‘Tragic’ that appeared on the programme for the première in Vienna on the 4 January 1907 — but was that the composer’s idea? In the first movement the ‘Alma theme’ rises to be joined by a theme borrowed from Liszt’s First Piano Concerto; was this on purpose or because he just had it in his head after conducting the same concerto in 1903? And what about Alma’s reminiscence that the second theme is her husband’s portrait in music of her, do we believe her?

Alma’s notorious unreliability comes to the fore when she tells us the Scherzo’s middle part – the ‘Altväterisch’ Trio – represents the ‘unrhythmical games’ of their two daughters. The problem with that is that in the summer of 1903, when Mahler was writing the music of that movement, one daughter (Maria) was less than a year old and the other (Anna) had not yet been born. Additionally we need to ask if the Finale should have two or three hammer blows and indeed the original conception may actually have involved five. Alma believed that Mahler had tempted fate by composing the Sixth Symphony and his Kindertotenlieder, and was himself responsible for what befell him later in 1907. It was Mahler’s view that an artist might sense his own future.

Of course, the greatest controversy concerns the order of the inner movements. For the musical conspiracy theorists amongst my readers this remains a fascinating story including a shameful cover-up by the International Gustav Mahler Society. Mahler’s first thoughts with his Sixth Symphony placed the Scherzo second to be followed by the Andante third. It was the standard classical practice at the time to have the slow movement come second and a dance movement third. However Beethoven swapped the order for his Ninth Symphony, and so did Mahler in his Fourth. Mahler’s uncertainty about the matter is revealed since he switched the original Roman numerals on his autograph score. His publisher printed the score Scherzo/Andante, but while rehearsing for its first performance (Essen, May 1906), Mahler began to play the Andante first then the Scherzo (A/S) and had slips inserted into unsold copies of the score to indicate the change. So this is how the symphony was performed while Mahler was alive, and how his friend Willem Mengelberg performed it with his Amsterdam Concertgebouw orchestra in 1916. In 1919 however – before conducting the Sixth once again – it is possible that the conductor may have come across a pre-erratum-slip S/A copy of the score but for whatever reason he telegraphed Alma for clarification … probably not the best idea! Her brief answer was, ‘First Scherzo, then Andante,’ and that is how Mengelberg conducted it in 1919 and 1920. If this issue was so important then it is very strange that nothing further was heard from Alma when other conductors in live performance or on recordings chose the A/S version.

The ‘Critical Edition’ of the Sixth Symphony was produced by the International Gustav Mahler Society in Vienna in 1963 and this was S/A. There was no genuine evidence for suggesting this yet the Editor, Erwin Ratz, explained that Mahler had quickly realized his mistake and restored his preferred order. Not even Alma’s telegram rated a mention in this explanation I believe, and few conductors challenged the decision although many intriguing things happened as a consequence. John Barbirolli for instance, continued to conduct the piece A/S, but for his recording in 1967, EMI switched the movements – apparently without Barbirolli’s approval – to conform to the ‘Critical Edition’. EMI did restore them later to the order the conductor wanted, however.

There is just no evidence that I am aware of that Mahler changed his mind about wanting the Andante before the Scherzo and recently The International Gustav Mahler Society itself has published its revised second thoughts along these lines. My own opinion, for what it is worth, is that the symphony has more impact, is more frightening – more ‘tragic’ maybe? — if the Alpine refuge of the Andante comes before the ‘Dance of Death’ (Totentanz) horrors of the Scherzo. Although I appreciate both sides of the argument can get bogged down in technicalities and other musical minutiae … and maybe that is what is happening to me here? It was the conductor Benjamin Zander who suggested, there are actually two Mahler Sixths – the one that was the original conception of Mahler the composer and the one that was the result of the revisions of Mahler the conductor, made in the process of rehearsing and performing the work.

The purpose of this lengthy introduction to the Sixth Symphony is, firstly, that it was the S/A version that was performed by Maestro Noseda and the LSO and, secondly, absolutely none of this was discussed in Stephen Johnson’s programme note … and this was unforgivable.

This Sunday evening was almost unique in my memory with two competing Mahler performances in London’s two major concert halls. Across London Simon Rattle and his Berliners were performing the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony but I cannot believe his Mahler would have bettered what was heard in the Barbican Hall. Rattle has been suggested as the LSO’s next principal conductor yet on this evidence they have no need to look further than Gianandrea Noseda. His conducting was inexhaustible and inspirational: he is often likened most to Valery Gergiev, the LSO’s current principal conductor, but leaning forward with his long arms and often exhorting his players with mouth agape – rather reminiscent of Munch’s The Scream – it was Georg Solti who came to mind. His account was equally ferocious, unepisodic, and fast-driven whilst allowing his orchestra to fully reveal their breathtaking virtuosity.

It was launched with an appropriately unremitting heavy tread, there were some bright colours and the performance positively embraced any temporary relief from the misery such as in the tranquil interlude. Sitting as I was almost in the orchestra I have never appreciated before that the celeste is so prominent in this symphony and how the off-stage cowbells and other bells can give such a wonderful sense of otherworldliness with their contributions during the performance. The Scherzo was also fairly unremitting although there was some beautiful phrasing in the gentle first trio. It did make a case for performing this Sixth Symphony A/S because when the first two movements are played like this without any break it is undoubtedly viscerally intense but there is still a sense of sameness about well over 30 minutes of music.

The performance hit its stride with the Andante which moved at a flowing pace and there was warmth and rustic awkwardness from the orchestra. Best of all was the Finale; from a disturbingly gloomy opening, it all marched forward with a strong and measured tread. There was an emotional sweep to the more lyrical second subject and these sudden moments of euphoria were punctuated by the exclamations of the tragedy … and two flamboyant hammer blows from Neil Percy! I do not have the words to praise the Finale enough and there was further evidence that Maestro Noseda had an impressive vice-like grip on the narrative arc. Even though I knew what was coming the brass seemed to lull me into a false sense of security making the last fortissimo A minor full orchestra chord even more terrifying in its suddenness than I can ever remember hearing it before.

 When the symphony finished I felt nearly as exhausted as some of the members of the London Symphony Orchestra looked and it was as if I had glimpsed Mahler’s soul whilst being fully aware how in the words of Nietzsche – whose idea of the tragic may or may not have appealed to Mahler – ‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.’

 Jim Pritchard

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