Unmannered and Straightforward Mahler from Salonen and the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bartók and Mahler: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 7.5.2017. (GD)

Bartók – Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra

Mahler – Symphony No.6 in A minor

Mahlerians today tend to count the Sixth Symphony as one of the composer’s ‘greatest’ works; if not his ‘greatest’ single achievement. But seen from another perspective, the Sixth has been the subject of all manner of controversy from the time of its first performance under Mahler in 1906. Did Mahler intend the third, final catastrophic hammer blow in the very long finale, excluded tonight by Salonen? Should the ‘Andante moderato’ constitute the second or third movement in juxtaposition to the ‘Scherzo’? Salonen adhered to the more recent convention of placing the Andante as third movement, despite evidence that Mahler preferred the more logically dynamic deployment of it as the second, with the Scherzo as third movement. Two of Mahler’s most pioneering protégé’s Walter and Klemperer, chose never to perform the work; Walter finding it too sentimental and over the top in general; and Klemperer simply claiming (ironically?) never to have ‘understood’ it.

Overall, Salonen gave an unmannered and straightforward rendition of the work tonight, eschewing the more ‘romantic’ and rhetorical interpretive excesses that this symphony is open to. But overall, his reading lacked a certain sense of dramatic contrast. It wasn’t so much a lack of overall narrative structure which Mahler saw as ‘all important’ if Bruno Walter is to be believed. It was more a case of everything registering at virtually the same dynamic/dramatic level throughout the first movement, and indeed the whole symphony. The opening rhythmic figure in the string bass was well judged in terms of tempo, with a real thrust in the bass registers, but in the more lyrical sections, such as the F major ‘Alma’ theme, which Adorno has shown, ‘leads nowhere’, and the ‘chorale’ theme, failed to make their real contrasting effect. The coda’s mock triumphant fanfares, often played too loudly, lacked Boulez’s and Abbado’s rhythmic finesse having no sense of release, of dynamic energy in reserve. Salonen paid meticulous attention to detail (often in the orchestra’s upper register) – though harps, xylophone, and cow-bells were at times hardly audible, although this was partly due to the Festival Hall’s restricted acoustic. These problems of orchestral balance and clarity were not helped by Salonen’s decision not to deploy the orchestral lay-out that Mahler had in mind when composing the symphony with antiphonal violins and double-basses either in a row at the back of the orchestra, or on the left-hand side. Too often, the brass just trundled out the music all at the same strident level, obliterating important accompanying woodwind detail.

The two middle movements, although played in questionable order, were delivered more successfully than the outer movements. The ‘Andante moderato’ in particular was sustained at the andante pace asked for by the composer and was free from interpretative impositions – thus emphasising the music’s noble and slightly fractured elegiac quality. But again, I missed that balancing of the dialectic between formal structure and emotional content, so important in Mahler and which conductors like Boulez, Abbado and Gielen brought, and still bring off, so well.

The Hoffmannesque ‘Scherzo ‘was quite rhythmically adroit, Salonen paying especial attention to the poignant parody of the graceful minuet rococo style of the trio section, reminding us that Mahler was a great admirer and interpreter of Mozart. Here, the strings and woodwinds played with great delicacy and finesse. But at times Salonen merely directed the outward contour of the scherzo failing to punctuate Mahler’s many zig-zagging rhythms and sudden ‘uncanny’ off-beat dynamic figurations, rhythmic clusters and tattoos.

Salonen mostly contoured the massive finale successfully, observing Mahler’s crucial sostenuto marking and maintaining a good Allegro moderato throughout, especially at the crucial climaxes which unleash the massive constellations of minor key brass chorales, the wild swirling wind/string figurations and fatal hammer blows. In conducting terms, it is a question of carefully gauging these cardinal climaxes, on which the whole huge edifice is structured and hangs together, in a way that coheres to the baroque and contrapuntally complex intermediary music and ultimately to the whole work: it’s a question again of balancing the dialectic of the huge formal structure with its dramatic/rhetorical content. The two hammer blows made their effect in terms of sound, but I heard little of the composer’s sense of trauma and catastrophe which older generation conductors like Rosbaud and Horenstein understood so well. Again, despite Salonen’s sense of structure and coherence, I missed some of Mahler’s crucial moments of dynamic contrast as in the last desolate statement of the symphony’s rhythmic/chorale motto theme/, in A minor, punctuated by fff timpani, sounding, but simply failing to make its full impact as a unified dramatic effect, compounding the coda’s grim mood of exhaustion and desolation. Not really a coda in the classical symphonic sense, more a dramatic statement of trauma which should leave the audience and performers devastated. Tonight, any such mood was abruptly interrupted by a well-rehearsed shout of Brravo… with fully rolled ‘rs’ by a member of the audience.

Despite the above reservations, the Philharmonia was in excellent form, especially in the woodwind section. Also a full and sonorous, rich tone in the strings, especially the double-basses. And the orchestra’s excellent new French principal timpanist, Antoine Siguré, negotiated all of Mahler’s timpani challenges with complete mastery and accuracy.

The concert opened with Bartók’s Sonata masterpiece transposed as a superb concerto for percussion, two piano and orchestra. It is now well known that Bartók added orchestral, concerto parts to the sonata in 1942, basically to generate some much-needed income. Bartók’s orchestral transposition is masterful, never compromising the effects of the original sonata. For the late, great Pierre Boulez the first movement in particular gains a ‘different dimension’ in its concerto form. From the highly wrought chromatic style in the first movement, to the wonderfully atmospheric ‘night music’ of the second movement, and rhythmic folk inflections of the last movement, everything tonight struck the right chord, with a wonderfully idiomatic realisation of Bartók’s unique compositional style, Aimard and Stefanovich played in perfect accord with each other and the  orchestra, and the already mentioned timpanist Antoine Siguré played with power and rhythmic precision, never sounding merely loud, as is sometimes the case. Salonen conducted in total harmony (and dialogue) in sonata style. He realised Bartók’s orchestral/concerto power and subtlety with thrilling sharp accents in the brass, and a wonderfully haunting sotto voce, in the night music.

I must add one negative note to do with the Festival Hall’s management. Throughout the concert there was no effective air conditioning, and the hall became horribly hot. In one of the Mahler movement intervals Salonen had to wipe his brow, and drink some water. For me it certainly made listening and concentration difficult. I hope Salonen, members of the audience, and the orchestral players, make the appropriate complaints!

Geoff Diggines

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