Refinement, Transparency, and Chamber-like Flexibility from Mark Elder and Britten Sinfonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler, Finzi and Brahms: Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano), Britten Sinfonia / Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 9.11.2017. (JPr)

Sir Mark Elder conducts Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican Hall, Thursday 9 November 2017. Photo by Mark Allan
Sir Mark Elder conducts the Britten Sinfonia (c) Mark Allan

Mahler (arr. Britten)What the Wild Flowers tell me
Finzi – The Fall of the Leaf, Op.20
Mahler – Rückert-Lieder
Brahms – Symphony No.1 in C minor

The Britten Sinfonia was founded in 1992 and inspired ‘by the ethos of Benjamin Britten through world-class performances, illuminating and distinctive programmes where old meets new, and a deep commitment to bringing outstanding music to both the world’s finest concert halls and the local community.’ Indeed, this concert was bookended by one in Norwich and another in Saffron Walden (which can be heard on BBC Radio 3 on 13 November or iPlayer). The Britten Sinfonia does not have a principal conductor or director and chooses to work with a range of international guest artists from across the musical spectrum as suited to each particular project. Now in their 25th year they have just launched a fundraising campaign to celebrate this. The ‘£25 for 25 years’ campaign asks supporters to give a £25 birthday donation to the orchestra (donations can be made via the orchestra’s website click here).

This is the Britten Sinfonia’s first Brahms cycle, and also the first that Sir Mark Elder will conduct. This was the first in a series of concerts which will programme each symphony – as here – alongside Mahler Lieder and works that are less well known from 20th century English repertoire. Quotes abounded in the informative printed programme: Mahler as we know said ‘A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything’ and from his Third Symphony we heard Britten’s adaptation of the second movement that he called ‘What the Wild Flowers Tell Me’ (Mahler used the Meadow in the title). Gerald Finzi (1901-56) himself once said ‘The artist is like the coral insect, building his life out of the transitory world around him and making a solid structure to last long after his fragile and uncertain life.’ The Britten Sinfonia played Finzi’s The Fall of Leaf, Op.20, a work left unfinished at the composer’s premature death and complete by his friend Howard Ferguson. Deryck Cooke considered Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder – here sung by Austrian mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman – ‘flower naturally into symphonic movements, being already symphonic in cast.’ Finally, when it was suggested that Brahms’s symphony was more like Beethoven’s Tenth than his First – because the opening to the finale pays homage to ‘Ode of Joy’ – Brahms once said, ‘any ass can see that’!

Brahms’s First Symphony was the most substantial work in a concert of less than 90 minutes music which still somehow exceeded an advertised finishing time by nearly 40 minutes. Mark Elder did briefly introduce two of the pieces – and was as informative as always – but this ‘overtime’ was still difficult to explain. Although the Britten Sinfonia are an Associate Ensemble at the Barbican the hall was not that full, and a smaller venue would have suited this small-scale concert better. Nevertheless, those who were not there missed a treat. Throughout Mark Elder’s dynamism and tight rhythmic control yielded refined playing, a delicate transparency, and chamber-like flexibility from the Britten Sinfonia.

Benjamin Britten’s 1941 arrangement ‘What the Wild Flowers Tell Me’ was his way of helping Mahler’s music reach a wider public at a time when performances of his symphonies were rare. Britten remains faithful to the original and imbues it with an intimacy, gentleness and accessibility that was reflected in the playing of the tight ensemble. Gerald Finzi’s The Fall of the Leaf, Op.20, came next and again raised the issue with ‘completions’ of unfinished music; in this case, how much do we hear that is Finzi and how much Ferguson? There is a lot packed into about 9 minutes and Elder described it as melancholic (definitely) and interesting (certainly) and talked about the eruptions there are in the music as something fighting to get out which ‘belies the autumnal nature of the piece’. The Fall of the Leaf reminded me in some ways of Strauss’s Metamorphosen, another elegy which is similarly nostalgic on the surface but has hidden depths of emotion. The repeated musical tension and release are similar – if in miniature – to the despairing final movement of Mahler’s ‘Tragic’ Sixth Symphony. Elder and the Britten Sinfonia wonderfully revealed the duality of Finzi’s composition.

Mahler’s five Rückert-Lieder do not form a true cycle but are more of a ‘collection’. The poetic theme of each is underlined by its distinctly individual thematic content and accompaniment. As always, the music is strongly dependent on the poetry and Mahler – as to be expected – finds inventive ways to match the intricacies of Rückert’s verse appropriately. ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ warns the listener not to be too inquisitive about the process of creation, and suggests that the poet does not trust even himself to enquire too much, as it is the finished work that counts and not how it was achieved. ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ is an expression of absolute contentment with someone. The most traditional of the songs was the last composed, ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’. The first three stanzas are clear variants of one another and the fourth begins as if it were to repeat the same pattern, yet the stress here is on the words Liebe (love) and immer (always) to emphasise that love must be for its own sake, not for beauty, youth or treasure. With the generally spare sounding accompaniment Elisabeth Kulman did not seem to fully – nor convincingly – inhabit these first three songs. ‘Um Mitternacht’ (At midnight) revealed her well-focussed, cultured mezzo sound to better effect as the restless soul of the song transcends despair and anger of night, to achieve the spiritual comfort of day. ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ is one of Mahler’s most beautiful and moving songs and evokes the peace achieved through the poet’s withdrawal from the everyday turmoil of the world and his absorption in the most meaningful and central aspects of his life; heaven, love, and song. Here in ‘I am lost to the world’ Kulman’s words like ‘gestorben’ (dead), ‘Gebeit’ (realm) and ‘Lieben’ (loving) were evocative in a way that would have been difficult if she had been singing with a bigger orchestra. Deserving of praise were the virtuosic contributions from Nicholas Daniel’s oboe d’amore and Emma Fielding’s cor anglais during these last two songs.

Elder suggested a cycle of Brahms symphonies with a chamber orchestra might be considered by some as ‘foolhardy’. Audiences today are used to a ‘tapestry of sound’, he said, from a ‘very large string body’ with woodwind which is often doubled. Having a string section only a little larger in number than Brahms himself often chose would redress the balance with his scoring for woodwind. Vibrato was also to be controlled more than it usually is.

Fourteen years separated the composition of the first and last movements of the First Symphony because Beethoven was haunting Brahms as suggested above. It seems to be another journey from darkness to light or night to day, and the work’s symphonic power is clear from the opening Allegro. The genteel slow movement then featured Nicholas Daniel’s oboe and culminated with a trenchant violin solo from Leader Thomas Gould. The third movement emphasised the graceful in Un poco allegretto e grazioso, with special mention here to Joy Farrall’s lyrical clarinet melody. Brahms’s finale is the longest part of the symphony and contains more drama than in any of the previous three movements, or that we heard in the rest of the concert for that matter. It all built with irresistible forward momentum – via Beethoven of course – to a sublime, heroically triumphant, life-affirming chorale for the full orchestra. The resplendent conclusion by Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia whetted the appetite for their future exploration of Brahms’s other symphonies yet to come.

Jim Pritchard

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