François-Xavier Roth Shows his Mettle in Mahler

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Berg and Mahler: Camilla Tilling (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra, François-Xavier Roth (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 21.1.2016 (AS)

Wagner: Parsifal – Act 1 Prelude
Berg: Sieben frühe Lieder
Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor

This concert was the first of two promoted under the banner of “After Romanticism”. Yet apart from Berg’s Violin Concerto in the second concert all the works programmed could fairly be described as representing late Romanticism itself. In the Philharmonia Orchestra’s “City of Light: Paris 1900-1950” series recently held at the Southbank Centre, lesser composer lights such as Milhaud and Roussel were confined to small ensemble performances, leaving standard fare by Debussy, Ravel and early Stravinsky to be featured in the main orchestral events. In the same way “After Romanticism” has relegated less popular works to ancillary activity, leaving box office favourites, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben respectively, to dominate the two main LSO concerts.

If these programmes suggest a certain amount of promotional caution, it was a bold move to open the first concert with Wagner’s Prelude to Act 1 of Parsifal. Set in the context of the opera house, with performers and audience contemplating the unfolding of a great music drama, that prelude provides a perfect opening to an evening. In the concert hall it is more difficult adequately to convey its quasi-religious, mystical atmosphere: some conductors have however coupled it with an orchestral version of the “Good Friday” music, to good effect. On this occasion François-Xavier Roth did remarkably well to evoke the intense, yearningly passionate, trance-like atmosphere of the music through patient, insightful shaping of its ebb and flow, even if the end of the piece seemed a little unsatisfactorily sudden. The LSO responded to Roth’s direction with sonorous, luminous playing.

The Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling has a beautiful voice, and she sang Berg’s gently romantic Seven Early Songs in immaculate style and with a good deal of charm. The work is something of a hybrid in this version, for Berg’s orchestration, which dates from 20 or so years after the original songs were written, uses many then up to date devices that were unknown to the younger composer. There were occasions when Tilling’s light, silvery tones were overcome by the LSO’s responsive playing, and Roth might well have kept dynamic levels down a little bit more.

These days every conductor seems to need to display his Mahlerian credentials, and here was the French conductor Roth paying his tribute to the Austrian composer. At the beginning of this work the issue of correct tempo is crucial, and Roth’s choice was just right, for he let the music unfold at a slow, steady gait, taking great care with the most sensitive ebbs and flow of phrase. The contrasting faster section of the movement had a wild, somewhat angry quality, underlined by superlative orchestral playing; and similar qualities informed the playing in the anguished second movement, whose balance and momentum were tightly kept under control by the conductor.

Sometimes the Scherzo is given a somewhat jolly face, as a relief from the storm and stress of the preceding music, but not here. It was a very serious, emphatically driven dance, the trio section very carefully moulded, and with the music’s final scream shouted out strongly.

It seemed as if the Adagietto was flowing by at a fair rate, as the composer undoubtedly wanted it to, but a timing of ten minutes for the movement suggested that Roth had cunningly struck a fine balance between repose and momentum.

The last movement gives a conductor less scope for achieving interpretative heights than the preceding four, or so it seemed on this occasion, for the impression of false high spirits seemed rather blatantly laid on, and both bathos and banality were in evidence. But the LSO’s playing was as brilliant as ever: the timbre and tone quality of this ensemble is surely perfect for Mahler’s crystal-clear instrumentation.

Alan Sanders  

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