Pappano’s Mahler Sixth: A Fireball of Energy and Passion

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shostakovich and Mahler: Viktoria Mullova (violin), London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 19.5.2016 (CS)

Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor
Mahler: Symphony No.6 in A minor 

During the afternoon I had guided a group of teenagers through Shakespeare’s account of Henry V’s exploits on the fields of Agincourt, and the playwright’s juxtaposition of the glory and horror, realism and sentimentality of war made a fitting prelude to this performance by Sir Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra of Mahler’s gargantuan Sixth Symphony.

For Pappano’s reading emphasised the epic theatricality of this immense symphony: its bitter struggles and myriad moods – tragic despair, prelapsarian solace, anarchic insolence.  The conductor leapt onto the podium and charged without pause into the pounding tread of the Allegro energico.  The movement pulsed with furious urgency – terrible in its relentless, grim insistence, like Henry’s army, ‘besmirch’d/ With rainy marching in the painful field’.  Pappano ignored the ma non troppo qualifier, but the tempo of the march seemed absolutely right, perfectly conveying the spirit of Mahler’s sub-instruction: Heftig, aber markig – violent and impetuous, but pithy.  The so-called ‘Alma theme’ initiated a slight broadening but there was still sufficient momentum to avoid mawkishness, and the string tone was rich and glossy.  The repeat of the exposition confirmed that while resistance was futile it was also inevitable.

Pappano opted to place the Scherzo second, before the Andante Moderato – despite the fact that Mahler adopted an Andante-Scherzo sequence at the first performance, instructing the publisher to insert an erratum notice in the first edition of the score, and that all performances during the composer’s lifetime placed the Andante as the second movement.  There needs to be good reason for Pappano’s arrangement and he communicated it here.   No sooner had the desperate driving rhythms of the first movement been stilled than the brief, charged silence had been brutally swept aside by the recommencement of the onward trudge, now in triple time but with no lessening of the fraught but unyielding resolve.  At the risk of labouring an extended metaphor, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s Duke of York who, as Exeter tells the King, three times was felled and ‘thrice up again and fighting;/ From helmet to the spur all blood he was.’

Pappano drew merciless ferocity from the LSO and under the onslaught of this inexorable aggression I began to feel rather pulverised.  The grotesqueness of the blundering lurch was emphasised by the third-beat accent of the timpani’s repeating thuds: Wuchtig, heavy, indeed.  This frightful, mechanistic brutality, and the harsh-edged timbres, veered into an almost hysterical danse macabre, and again I had a vision of Shakespeare’s battlefield where the fallen French princes ‘Lie drown’d and soak’d in mercenary blood’ and ‘wounded steeds/ Fret fetlock deep in gore and with wild rage/ Yerk out their armed heels at their dead masters’.

There was some lightening and restraining of tempo in the Altväterisch trio sections of the Scherzo, and though I’m not sure they quite attained Mahler’s intended Grazioso elegance, the jerking rhythms were not overly distorted by Pappano.  But it was not until the Andante moderato that more comforting relief was offered.  In this movement I found the rhythms a little stilted, though, and the phrasing sometimes mannered, which risks making the sentiments sound affected, though Pappano did steer clear of kitsch.  But, my misgivings were obliterated by the massive shuddering climax of the movement; there was some tremendous playing here from the antiphonally arranged violins with rich cellos resonating from the orchestral centre.

I’m not sure that Pappano quite had the measure of the Finale’s sprawling form.  The delicate mystery of the opening was effective, troubled as it was by destabilising outbursts, but when this episode recurred subsequently in the movement I did not gain a sense of accumulating intensity; in the middle of the 30-minute expanse Pappano seemed to lose his way.  However, I was won over by the prevailing jubilance underlying the tragic oppression, for it seemed to evoke the resilience of the human spirit: ‘glorious and well-foughten field/ We kept together in our chivalry!’

There was a re-gathering with the build-up to the first hammer blow, a passage that was electrifying in its theatricality: who would not feel a thrill and fear of anticipation upon seeing the percussion player hold the mammoth mallet aloft as we wait for the dreadful thump of huge hammer on wooden box – ‘like the stroke of an axe’, as Mahler described.

From then on the intensity deepened, until Pappano gently stepped on the brakes in the Coda.  There seemed to be the slightest suspension of time before the timpani’s final rhetorical pronouncement. Man’s energy may be spent, but the underlying life-force persists.

Wilhelm Furtwängler thought the Sixth Symphony, ‘the first nihilist work in the history of music’ and Bruno Walter described the ending as hope-destroying, ‘the dark night of the soul’.  I prefer Pappano’s reading which here suggested a heroic defiance to the last.  I was reminded of Ted Hughes’ poem, ‘Football at Slack’, in which ‘Between plunging valleys’ an optimistic and determined group of footballers irrepressibly defy the ‘Winds from fiery holes in heaven’ as the ‘rain lowered a steel press’, and continue their game even as the ‘humped word sank foundering/ And the valleys blued unthinkable/ Under the depth of Atlantic depression –’.  Hughes ends with an image, both witty and profound, which conveys the admiration of the elements for the resilience of the human spirit: ‘once again a golden holocaust/ Lifted the cloud’s edge, to watch them’.

Mahler takes us on a ghastly route march and if Pappano didn’t quite seem to have pin-pointed the final destination on the map, then this was compensated for by the sheer gutsiness and physical verve of the conductor’s performance, which was operatic in its vitality.  The London Symphony Orchestra played tremendously for him.  There may have been some occasional raggedness of ensemble in the string ranks, but the orchestral players were unanimously unwavering, not once flagging, in their commitment.

Given that the enlarged forces were almost spilling from the Barbican Hall stage, the clarity of texture, and the definition and differentiation of timbre were remarkable.  Despite the prevailing shadows which oppress the symphony, the sound was bright and alive.  The low brass rasped and the tuba resounded; the percussion cracked, thumped and boomed.  The woodwind contributions were etched with hard-etched but warm-bodied incisiveness and there was much superb solo playing.  The double basses thundered and rumbled malevolently.  One could hear every tinkle of the celeste, each clink of the cowbell, every col legno snap.

This performance was a fireball of energy and passion.  The breadth, excess and sense of ‘abounding valour’ were breath-taking.  With total command, Pappano led from the front, and both his players and his audience were with him all the way.

There was fearlessness, too, from violinist Viktoria Mullova in the daring and direct performance of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto which preceded Mahler’s symphony.  Her forthrightness was underpinned by a flawless technique and her assurance made this knotty, unpredictable work utterly persuasive.

The meditative lament of the Nocturne had a mesmerising intensity, soulful but not sentimental in tone.  Some might have preferred more emotional openness but I liked the sense of introspection conveyed, especially as it contrasted with the more candid episodes.  Climbing high up the E-string Mullova employed a wide vibrato and her sound shone; she rose effortlessly above the ranked power of the antiphonal, pulsing violins and harp etchings.  Pappano’s somewhat idiosyncratic and irregular gestures clearly served their purpose for he conjured rich sonorities from the woodwind – including Dantesque vibrations from the contrabassoon – at the movement’s climax.  Then, the violin’s high muted reflections – Mullova’s brief exit before the concerto began, to retrieve her forgotten mute, was fortunate – and the evenness of the harp at the close restored the calm reticence.

It was a transitory lull though.  The savagery of the Scherzo was shocking: against the razor-sharp interjections of flute, bass clarinet and bassoon, the solo violin fielded fierce accents.  As the dance progressed, Mullova was not afraid to explore abrasive textures and timbres, roaring through the double-stopping and chords.  She produced a truly powerful sound: if I say that she cut through the devilish orchestral maelstrom like cheese-wire that’s intended as a compliment.  The violinist entered into the frenzy with the wild impetuousness of a drunken peasant from the Steppes, and even the characteristically ‘cool’ Mullova worked up a sweat.

The Passacaglia and Finale revealed every facet of Mullova’s astonishing but unfussy technique.  The cleanness of the attack, even in the most insanely difficult passages, was astonishing.  Playing in the stratosphere, or mounting the upper reaches of the G string, her sound had a vibrancy which embodied the music’s borderline hysteria.  The springy, tense syncopations of the Burlesque finale propelled the movement to a breakneck conclusion.  This was spellbinding playing.

Claire Seymour

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and readers with access to the BBC iPlayer can listen to it for 30 days from the date of transmission by clicking here.

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