A Celebration of Mahler’s 6th from Bramwell Tovey and Edward Gregson

CanadaCanada Mahler, Gregson: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 4.6.2016 (GN)

Edward Gregson  (Courtesy Vancouver Symphony Orchestra)
Edward Gregson (Courtesy Vancouver Symphony Orchestra)

Gregson: Dream Song (North American Premiere)
Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A major, ‘Tragic’

It takes time for a conductor and orchestra to really get Mahler ‘in their blood’, and it would be a fortunate circumstance indeed if performing one Mahler symphony a year could do it. This has been the tradition of Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Stylistic difficulties showed to some extent in an otherwise fine 9th symphony two years ago, and last year’s 5th had some deficiencies in execution and interpretative line, but this year’s Mahler 6th promised something special. One important ingredient was that British composer Edward Gregson was in attendance for the North American premiere of his Dream Song, a companion piece for the symphony, commissioned by the BBC for the ‘Mahler in Manchester’ Festival of 2010. Perhaps performing this work gave Maestro Tovey extra inspiration for what followed: good stretches of the symphony contained some of the most naturally expressive and patient Mahler conducting I have seen from him. In particular, the long, sprawling finale moved forward strikingly, achieving real integration and compelling cumulative force by its end. The Gregson piece, which marshalled distilled fragments and images from the symphony within a more modern constructional palette, was also distinctive, and I found I appreciated it more after hearing the symphony.

The Mahler performance did not settle right away. The opening Allegro had an appealing gusto and passion, yet its linear drive tended to play down contrasts and make things feel more generalized, and indeed rushed, than they had to be. For one, the opening march rhythms were too light and quick: there was not enough thrust and ‘cheekiness’ to them. The quiet wind passages did achieve a nice sense of relaxation, yet the lyrical passages in the strings did not have quite the same ease. ‘Alma’s Theme’ needed to expand more and find greater languor. A basic continuity was always in place, but this approach required some questionable rallentandos and clipped phrasing to get home. While the brass coped diligently, one might have wanted greater accuracy from them.

Stronger poise and sensitivity were immediately revealed in the following movement, but the usual question arises as to ‘which’ following movement. The debate over the ordering of the middle movements has gone on for years. I grew up with the lumbering but loveable Barbirolli performance, and I’m used to having the Scherzo first, which enriches the tonal structure of the first movement while creating a more intriguing and dark rhythmic intensity. Nonetheless, it is now commonplace to put the Andante first (in conventional symphonic order), and that was done here. The opening string lines achieved a more natural Mahlerian repose and refinement, with a greater feeling of breadth and space. The pacing was excellent, and the wind contribution was admirable. The telling feature was the authenticity of feeling and sense of the right scale of intimacy.  It was only in a few of the more demonstrative sections that better dynamic terracing might have resulted from a more steadfast tempo.

The Scherzo was fine, if less noteworthy. At the quick tempo, the rhythms were purposive in an effectively martial way, but the macabre and witty dimensions of their angular thrust did not come out strongly. The Ländler might have had more charm with greater expression from the winds. The big story was the long and unwieldy finale: a real tour-de-force, and the best Mahler conducting that I have seen from this source. There is a temptation to seek unrivalled power and cinematics in this movement, which can make the construction seem fragmented and overblown. What impressed me was the sheer motion and sense of inevitability achieved, and the sincerity of the expression. The performance was powerful enough – the orchestra certainly stepped things up a notch – and it did not neglect either pastoral or macabre allusions. Yet it was the recognition of the singularly Viennese template of ongoing build-up and seamless release that made everything fit together so convincingly. Even as the foreboding high strings made their repeated entries and the ‘hammerblows’ came and went, Maestro Tovey was never tempted to add extra emphasis to the story or to cultivate the spectacular; the line was always transparent and direct. In some ways, this finale had the same structural integrity as the finale of the 5th symphony. If the story exposed was not demonstrably ‘tragic’ (I often think that the symphony’s nickname does more harm than good), one could hardly help thinking that many very big things were going on in this massive complexity. There was a great sense of emotional resolution at the work’s end, and I have not often been engaged as much.

Gregson and Tovey recorded the former’s Dream Song for Chandos in 2013 (review). The work attempts to use distilled fragments from the Mahler symphony as if suspended in a dream, and integrated by way of a ‘song’ derived from four notes of ‘Alma’s theme’. If one went to bed after a gripping performance of Mahler’s 6th, what random images might invade the course of your nightly rest? Perhaps the high string motive and the ‘hammerblows’ of the closing movement would enter first (as they did here), gently falling off to naturalistic cowbells and harps, only to be jolted later on by the eccentric rhythmic thrust of the Scherzo, with ‘Alma’s Theme’ moving in and out of it all. Having my own personal ‘dream’ about Gregson’s work after hearing the symphony finish, I recognized that the work gives you just enough links to the feelings and ambience of the symphony while pursuing its own voice as a tightly-knit modern construction. It has considerable instrumental variety, including violin solos, yet it is a strongly-anchored composition, and one that gets quite far with an economy of means. The work has both dramatic force and ingenuity, and an interesting lyrical canvas to go with it. At first, I thought the lyrical lines were too public and streamlined to capture the full intimacy of Mahler’s personal world, but Gregson does not exactly wish to re-create Mahlerian expression. Rather, the composer aims to express his own depth of feeling in a fully contemporary way, using a sharp distillation – and sometimes brazenly extreme amplification – of Mahlerian inputs. A very rewarding part of a very rewarding evening!

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com


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