Welter & Mystery: BBC Welsh Chorus and Orchestra Shine in Late Romantic Works

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler, Bruckner: BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thomas Søndergård (conductor): BBC National Chorus of Wales / Adrian Partington (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 20.1.2017. (PCG)

Bruckner – Motets: ‘Locus iste’ (1869), ‘Os justi’ (1879), ‘Christus factus est’ (1884), ‘Ave Maria’ (1861)
Mahler – Symphony No.6 in A minor (1904)

Søndergård’s traversal of the cycle of Mahler symphonies with the BBC NOW here reached a point slightly further than halfway with the tragic Sixth, performed (as a fellow member of the audience pointed out to me) on the same day as Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States. Like its predecessors in the cycle, presented one a year, this too was a triumphant traversal of a score that is not without its controversial points. Mahler’s symphonies, unlike Bruckner’s, generally present few points of doubt about the composer’s final intentions; the Sixth is a notable exception. Mahler originally placed the Scherzo, opening with a sort of parodic imitation of the first movement’s tramping beat, second in the running order, and this is the way in which the symphony is often performed to this day. However later he changed his mind, placing the slow movement (Andante) second with the Scherzo following. It seems to me that, in purely musical terms, he was exactly correct. The new layout presents us with more contrast: the first movement is fast, the second slow, the third fast again, and the fourth begins with a slow introduction before accelerating into the main body of the finale. That was the manner in which Søndergård presented the symphony here, and he proved the rectitude of Mahler’s second thoughts: the slow movement did not need to be too slow to emphasise its point, moving at a flowing pace which avoided any sense of stagnation, and the Scherzo (often rushed by conductors adopting the original order of movements, in order to bring out the parodic elements) could be taken at a slightly more leisurely pace allowing the delicious pointing of the woodwind in particular to make their full point.

In the finale however there are a couple of minor textual amendments which Mahler made to the score, and which Søndergård adopted here, which seem to me more problematic. In the original score, the appearances of the ‘fate’ theme (blaring brass major chords turning to minor, a contrast which Mahler had originally employed as far back as the Second Symphony) are preceded by a swift upward harp glissando occupying one beat (in the 1906 edition of the printed score). Mahler seems to have felt the need to make more a feature of this, and moved the entry of the harp back by two beats (the passage recurs several times, and is clearly shown in its amended form in later printings such as the undated Kalmus miniature score). But the harp glissandi now appear to me to be too slow, necessitating either a very deliberate approach by the player or the insertion of a ‘loop’ to protract the glissando to occupy its allotted time-span. Is there a case here to be made for a compromise between the composer’s two instructions, allowing just two beats for the effect to make its mark? (That of course would mean assuming that Mahler didn’t know precisely what he was doing – an argument that would be impossible to sustain!) Where one can question the composer is in his decision to delete the final hammer-blow in the finale, an omission especially to be regretted in this performance where the previous two strokes had been so theatrically and dramatically delivered. Mahler’s reason for the deletion appears to have been at least partly motivated by superstition, but it seems to me that the movement is the poorer for it.

But these are momentary and very minor points of concern, passing in a fleeting instant. What was also apparent here was, as before in Søndergård’s Mahler, the conductor’s ability to locate and bring out details and elements in the music which are frequently obscured in performance, although they are clearly present in the printed text of the score. The orchestra played like gods, throwing themselves into the welter of the orchestration and relishing the moments of mystery; although the presence of the offstage cowbells and deeper bells was perhaps more mysterious than one would have liked, barely audible from where I was sitting in the auditorium. But better that than the unmusical clatter which we sometimes hear. There were occasional disadvantages arising from the bunching of all the violins (thirty of them) on the left of the stage, but Mahler’s use of antiphonal effects in this symphony is far less prominent than in (say) the Ninth Symphony, and the occasional loss of clarity was comprehensively outweighed by the solid strength and body of the string sound throughout. One looks forward with eager anticipation to the conclusion of Søndergård’s survey of the Mahler symphonies.

Another element in this cycle which has added to audience enjoyment is the selection of works to accompany Mahler, always interesting and unexpected. Here we were given a complete contrast in the form of four motets for unaccompanied choir by Bruckner. For many years in the early twentieth century Bruckner and Mahler were frequently linked, presumably on the grounds that both wrote cycles of lengthy post-Wagnerian symphonies; but even at that time commentators were quick to point out that otherwise the similarities were more apparent than real, with the more conservative Bruckner looking back to romantic models while the radical Mahler boldly challenged the incoming twentieth century with music that proved to be an inspiration to many later composers. Bruckner’s church music, however, is a real rarity in concert halls, generally confined nowadays to church performances by relatively small bodies of singers. Here the full forces of the BBC Welsh choristers showed how much small-scale performances underplay the drama of the music. The enormous range of dynamic contrasts, with sudden shifts from fff to ppp, were given full rein here under the alert baton of Adrian Partington, and the music gained immeasurably from this. Nor, given the size of the choir, was there the slightest suspicion of problems with tuning that one might have suspected from a large body of amateurs coping with Bruckner’s often tricky chromatic modulations. We need to have more performances of Bruckner’s church music with choirs of this size, both in performance and on record; they would add a whole new dimension to our appreciation of the music. I don’t know whether Bruckner ever actually heard these scores on this sort of scale, but his writing clearly shows that he had this dramatic sort of impact in his mind.

The concert unusually was not broadcast live (BBC Radio 3 had already relayed a performance of Mahler’s Sixth the previous evening) but it is to be transmitted on 27 January (and subsequently on the BBC iPlayer) when it will reward listeners immensely. They may also find that the Bruckner motets introduce them to a whole new concept of the music itself. By the way, listeners may also be interested to note that BBC Radio 3 is to relay the concert of Welsh music including Daniel Jones’s Symphony No.13 and Hilary Tann’s The grey tide and the green in their afternoon concert on 23 January, as well as a live broadcast of the final concert in their ‘Welsh Foundations’ series on 27 January. I reviewed the earlier concert for this site last November.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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