An Excellent Pairing of Berg and Mahler by Noseda and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berg and Mahler: Janine Jansen (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor). Barbican Hall, London. 6.4.2017. (JPr)

Gianandrea Noseda

Berg – Violin Concerto

Mahler – Symphony No.7

At an interesting pre-concert event to celebrate the release on LSO Live of his live performance of the season-opener Verdi’s Requiem (concert review here), Gianandrea Noseda, the London Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, said he thought he was more or less able to approach any kind of repertoire ‘but I feel particularly close with the Italian and Russian’. Italy for obvious reasons and Russia because of the ten years he was there working at the Mariinsky Theatre. Thinking about the Requiem, he mentioned how he liked the idea ‘when something works particularly well on stage, live, to have something that will stay there for many years.’ I applaud that because too often great evenings in the concert hall come and go without leaving any recorded memories behind.

Noseda followed up by considering the concert he was soon to conduct: ‘Now I have something else to do and it is nothing connected with Russia or Italy’. He went to on to remind us how Mahler spent most of his time in the Italian part of the South Tyrol so he got some influences from being there and Berg is among the three composers who largely used dodecaphony (twelve-tone technique) and the one who used it in the more lyrical way, and by that Noseda meant ‘the very Italian, very espressivo, way’.

In this programme Mahler’s Seventh Symphony was preceded by Berg’s Violin Concerto, which is not only Mahlerian in its plaintiveness and angst, but also has a family connection because of his widow Alma. Berg wrote his Violin Concerto – subtitled ‘To the memory of an angel’ – as a memorial to her daughter Manon, the child of Alma’s later marriage to Walter Gropius. ‘A musicologist is someone who can read music but cannot hear it!’ was pronounced at some study day I was at decades ago and I often find this to be true, though Gavin Plumley is one of the better ones and his informative programme note explored a further connection with Mahler by concluding how the Violin Concerto’s four movements ‘outline a symphonic shape, though a symphony of a singular kind, with both its first and last movement slow. Mahler’s Ninth seems a possible model and the Concerto shares the same valedictory mood, the same acceptance of death in its final pages.’

The musical language of Berg and his contemporaries can to be difficult for even seasoned listeners of classical music, though I doubt very much if anyone could fail to be moved by what is essentially a requiem for Alma Mahler’s daughter who died because of polio at 18. Janine Jansen – at the conclusion of her LSO Artist Portrait series – was the soloist and appeared undaunted by the work’s numerous musical challenges. She began softly and the opening arpeggios made barely any sound, but that almost-nothing was very revelatory because of its beauty and exactness. Jansen continued playing softly pretty well all through the Violin Concerto which I suppose is fitting for this work. There was great control and clarity, though I just wondered if there could have been even more ‘beauty’ with Jansen making rather more use of all the tone colours at her disposal. Berg takes the soloist to near the upper limit of the violin’s range before its contribution dissolved into the sound of the massed strings of the London Symphony Orchestra. Jansen’s playing of the adagio melody that leads into this dissolution was breath-taking, and fully expressive in a very luminous way. How Noseda shaped the music and unflinchingly guided the Allegro towards the tragic climax in the third movement and catharsis through the Bach Chorale ‘Es ist genug’ of the finale – uncovering much detail along the way – was simply extraordinary, and in itself, profoundly moving. There was a delightful touch during the applause as Jansen passed on her well-deserved bouquet to the principal tuba, Patrick Harrild, who was retiring from the orchestra after this performance.

After the interval it was Mahler’s Seventh, and given that the final movement is inspired by Die Meistersinger it was astonishing that the LSO continues to reprint Stephen Johnson’s programme note which includes not one mention of Wagner. With the deepest respect to Stephen if there had been no Wagner … there would have been no Mahler 7 – at least not in the form it was written. When Mahler performed his Seventh Symphony in 1909 in Amsterdam he proposed a first-half with three Wagner works – Eine Faust-OuvertüreSiegfried Idyll and the prelude from Die Meistersinger, however in the end – for various reasons – they played only the prelude. I have never heard this Mahler symphony programmed with it and I wish some orchestra would, and then the real origins of this symphony could be debated and the audience properly educated about some of the music they are hearing. Of course, I am not a musicologist, but (with respect to all concerned) I can hear – I certainly could not read! – Mahler’s Seventh Symphony and am convinced of Wagner’s influence.

Some conductors seek out irony in this work and there probably isn’t any: we can believe Mahler when he wrote how the symphony is ‘predominantly cheerful in character’. In fact, when performed as an uncomplicated, straightforward and optimistic masterpiece it brings the Seventh fairly high – if not to the top – of my list of favourite Mahler symphonies. There are of course ‘darker’ passages, and even Mahler indicated that the Scherzo should be ‘shadowy’, but the only potential horrors here are of a child’s ‘things that go bump in the night’ type. As the Night Watchman sings at the end of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger Act III ‘Beware of ghosts and spooks so that no evil spirit ensnares your soul’ … I could not myself give a better summing up of this third movement. And there is much more that can be attributed to Wagner including the ‘stroke of the oars’ (as Mahler described it) opening and the guitar and mandolin serenade of the second Nachtmusik. I have commented on all this before and cannot repeat it again here (see this review).

Nothing in Noseda’s rampant Shostakovian reading of the score made me sit up more than the hint in the Allegro con fuoco of ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ which I seemed to hear for the first time. Given how clearly Noseda showed Mephistopheles was present during the danse macabre-like Scherzo I am even open now to the Faustian interpretation of the Seventh Symphony I have seen propounded elsewhere. Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is undoubtedly one more of his ‘biographical’ – of one sort or another – works whose secret has for far too long been ignored.

There was a sense of rightness about Noseda’s tempo choices though the arc of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony may just have a bit more ‘darkness to light’ than the conductor allowed it on this occasion. Credit him with taking what is supposedly Mahler’s ‘problem symphony’ and having a clear-sighted, almost brash, riposte. The LSO were with him every step of the way and were generally excellent and how wonderful it was to hear the contribution of Forbes Henderson’s guitar and James Ellis’s mandolin so clearly for once. For the first time I can remember, these instruments were played not from the midst of the orchestra, but the far right of the platform at the front. As Johnson quite tightly wrote: ‘If any of Mahler’s symphonies deserves to be described as a “Concerto for Orchestra”, it is the Seventh’. Noseda brought that out by allowing everyone from the massed percussion, the harps, the brass to the strings, ‘off the leash’ (or should that be baton?) more than in any other Mahler 7 I have heard. After all the colourful sounds and panoramic textures the superb LSO approached the riotous end with horns suitably blazing. There was never a hint of the anxiety with which this movement can sometime be imbued and joy was unconfined for me and most those around me in the Barbican Hall.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the LSO at the Barbican this season and in 2017/18 visit

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