United Kingdom Britten and Mahler: London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor) Barbican Hall, London, 8.5.2019. (CSa)
Britten – Sinfonia da Requiem Op.20
Mahler – Symphony No.5
Whoever it was who decided to pair Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in this London Symphony Orchestra concert, chose wisely. It made for a finely balanced programme. Benjamin Britten was greatly moved by the work of Gustav Mahler, and from the early 1930s, made every effort to hear his music. Several of Britten’s works clearly manifest Mahler’s delicate musical language and preoccupation with mortality, none more so than the Sinfonia da Requiem. Described by The New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross as ‘a bitterly eloquent lament in time of war’, Sinfonia was Britten’s response to a commission from the Japanese Government in September 1939 to commemorate the 2,600th anniversary of the Japanese dynasty the following year. Dismissed as ‘too Christian’ by the organisers, the work was first performed in New York in March 1941, 8 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.
The ominous beat of timpani, agitated woodwind, apocalyptic brass and the rising swell of the LSO’s luxuriant strings in the opening Lacrymosa spoke eloquently of the dark, weary march of war. In a scampering, feral Dies Irae, Rattle’s insistent baton unleashed a terrifying totentanz, followed by an ineffably sad lullaby in the Requiem aeternam. As a great orchestral chorale slowly builds and then falls away, leaving a delicate fretwork of woodwind and harp, the voice of Britten is gently suffused with that of Mahler.
It was Mahler’s voice, in the form of his mighty Fifth Symphony, to which the second half of this concert was devoted. Like his First Symphony it is entirely instrumental and employs huge orchestral forces. As he himself said ‘When I have reached a summit, I leave it with reluctance unless it is to reach for another, higher one.’ Standing at the crossroad of late nineteenth century romanticism and twentieth century modernism, the journey is a mountainous challenge for any orchestra.
The first movement, marked Trauermarsch (Funeral March), opens with an ominous trumpet call, a spectral presentiment of war, building up to a ferocious passage in which the forces of the full orchestra are unleashed. Blazing brass, thundering timpani, and an artillery of side drums and triangles give way to a solemn shuffling march by the strings and woodwind sections. Rattle, his face grimacing with emotion and arms outstretched, drew a stunning richness of tone from his players, encouraging individual virtuosity, but never at the expense of cohesiveness and team collaboration.
The stormy second movement was faithfully played as Mahler directed, mit grösster Vehemenz (with utmost vehemence), while preserving clarity of texture. Rumbling, agitated lower strings were joined by outbursts of shrill indignation from the woodwinds and brass.
A joyous fanfare of horns marks the beginning of the third movement. What then unfolds is a frenzied Scherzo described by Mahler as ‘primeval’. He questioned what his audience would make of ‘this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound…these dancing stars…these breath-taking iridescent and flashing breakers.’ Weaving through these wild and disparate elements is a manic Viennese waltz or Ländler. Rattle drove the music forward, never losing sight of the work’s overall structure.
The Adagietto, delicately scored for strings and solo harp, provides a harbour of tranquillity after the tumult of the previous movement. Mahler intended it as a musical love letter to his future wife Alma. Marked Sehr langsam (very slow) and taken by Rattle a little faster perhaps than some of his contemporaries, the movement’s linear quality was still preserved and played with inexpressible beauty.
In a dramatic change of mood, the boisterous Rondo-Finale burst forth – a tidal wave of exuberance, played at great speed but close attention to every detail.
After conducting the symphony’s premier in Cologne in 1904, Mahler, who died seven years later, is reported to have said ‘Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance 50 years after my death.’ I would like to think that had Mahler been a member of the Barbican audience witnessing the supreme musicianship of the LSO under Simon Rattle, he would have been reassured that his great masterpiece had been understood.