Looking back at Rattle and the LSO’s new Turnage and Mahler Six in 2017 proves consoling rather than tragic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Turnage, Mahler: London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall performance from 19.1.2017 and reviewed on 18.5.2020 as an Always Playing full-length concert from the LSO’s archive. (JPr)

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the LSO (c) Tristram Kenton

Mark-Anthony Turnage – Remembering – In Memoriam Evan Scofield

Mahler – Symphony No.6 in A minor

I will admit UK’s current coronavirus lockdown has made me revisit – thanks to the worldwide preponderance of online streaming content – my favourite operas, ballets, classical music, as well as, singers, dancers, and musicians. Since it has been a very long time since I last heard Mahler’s Sixth Symphony – (sorry) I do not listen to much relevant recorded music – and as the recent LSO’s Always Playing event featured the January 2017 concert (conducted by Sir Simon Rattle) it was played in, I felt this was something too good to miss, and I was proved right. It was introduced (in lockdown) by LSO’s second horn player, Angela Barnes, before replaying the informative backstage content hosted – for the original live YouTube presentation – by Rachel Leach. Ms Barnes told us this concert was some months before Rattle took up the position of music director but how it was ‘the first big event [where] excitement and momentum’ was building towards that and how there was ‘a real sense of anticipation of this partnership we were forming.’ Clearly some thought had gone towards the overall presentation and admirably this had not just been made available for the sake of it.

This has given me the chance to reuse some of my thoughts from several years ago on Mahler’s Sixth Symphony which is laden with mystery and contradictions. We start with the nickname ‘Tragic’ that appeared on the programme for the première in Vienna on 4 January 1907 — but was that the composer’s idea? In the first movement the ‘Alma theme’ rises to be joined by a theme borrowed from Liszt’s E flat Piano Concerto; was this on purpose or because he just had it in his head after conducting same concerto in 1903? And what about Alma’s reminiscence that the second theme is her husband’s portrait in music of her, do we believe her? Alma’s notorious unreliability comes to the fore when she tells us the Scherzo’s middle part – the ‘Altväterisch’ Trio – represents the ‘unrhythmical games’ of their two daughters. The problem with that is because in the summer of 1903, when Mahler was writing the music for that movement, one daughter (Maria) was less than a year old and the other (Anna) had not yet been born. Additionally, we need to ask if the Finale should have two hammer blows – as Rattle was content with – or three? Indeed, the original conception may have involved five! Alma believed that Mahler had tempted fate by composing his Sixth and the Kindertotenlieder and had brought on himself everything that was to subsequently happen to him in 1907: Mahler’s view was that an artist might sense his own future.

Of course, the greatest controversy concerns the order of the inner movements. This has everything a conspiracy theorist loves including a great cover-up by the International Gustav Mahler Society (IGMS). Mahler’s first thoughts with his Sixth Symphony placed the Scherzo second to be followed by the Andante third though it was standard classical practice at the time to have the slow movement come second and a dance movement third. Mahler’s uncertainty about the matter is revealed as he switched the original Roman numerals on his autograph score. His publisher printed the score Scherzo/Andante (S/A), but while rehearsing its first performance (Essen, May 1906), he began to play the Andante first then the Scherzo (A/S). He had slips inserted into unsold copies of the score to indicate the change: this is how the symphony was performed while Mahler was alive and how his friend Willem Mengelberg performed it with his Amsterdam Concertgebouw orchestra in 1916. In 1919 however, before conducting the Sixth once again, it is possible that the conductor may have come across a pre-erratum-slip S/A copy of the score and he contacted Alma for clarification, probably not the best idea! Her brief answer was, ‘First Scherzo, then Andante,’ and that’s how Mengelberg conducted it in 1919 and 1920. Yet, if this issue was so important then it is strange that nothing further was heard from Alma when other conductors chose A/S for live performance or recordings.

Well, to cut an (already) overlong story short the musical waters were muddied by the IGMS in Vienna in 1963 who proclaimed – without any evidence – that it should be S/A, whilst conductors, such as John Barbirolli, continued to conduct the piece A/S. Nothing I am aware of suggested that Mahler changed his mind on this and eventually the IGMS published its revised second thoughts to settle the matter as Andante second followed by Scherzo. Rachel Leach told the watching audience that this was also Sir Simon Rattle’s opinion and we would hear the inner movements as A/S as he believed this was ‘Mahler’s true intentions’. I agree, as the symphony has more impact – can be more frightening, possibly more ‘tragic’? — if the Alpine refuge of the Andante comes before the ‘Dance of Death’ (Totentanz) of the Scherzo.

The concert was excellently filmed using seemingly unobtrusive, small, remote cameras capturing wonderfully intimate shots of musicians’ faces, as well as, the conductor. (In the Mahler there was genuine visceral excitement in seeing two timpanists in full flow.) I ended convinced that I enjoyed what I saw and heard more as this online streaming than I suspect I would have done in the Barbican Hall and this is a little worrying for the post-Covid future of classical music! Overall, I found the music the LSO played much more consoling than I ever expected.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Remembering – In Memoriam Evan Scofield is something of an elegy for the son of American jazz guitarist John Scofield – Turnage’s close friend and sometime musical collaborator – who died of cancer in 2013. It was having its first performance and the 30-minute duration was divided into four movements, so effectively a symphony. Over-reliance on percussion in the first movement made me ruminate ‘here we go again’ as to its current ubiquity in modern classical works. As it all unfolded, if they was something ‘new’ I would want to hear again, it would be Remembering. Other composers flashed through my mind, but nothing seemed to matter. The opening was spare and angular, part-Stravinsky, part-Gershwin in the use of the piano. There was a mournful second movement, yet I heard some references to Bernard Hermann’s film scores. Next was perhaps Turnage’s own Totentanz; waltz elements fused with scurrying flute figures and there was the ominous tolling of a bell to be heard. Finally, farewell morphed into remembrance with a melancholic viola/cello duet when thoughts turned to Mahler’s Sixth Symphony we would hear soon. There would be a (familiar?) brass threnody before the music faded as a distant memory. The LSO played it all with their usual commitment and incisiveness, and Rattle – with his head in the score – was impassive, almost Buddha-like, on the podium.

What a difference after the ‘virtual’ interval! Rattle – with the music now in his head – was much more animated and seemed to be singing along. My caveat is that I was hearing Mahler’s Sixth Symphony through (good) headphones and cannot be certain if it truly represented what was heard in the hall on the night. Regardless, it seemed the finest Sixth I have ever heard; strangely, rarely ‘tragic’, more meditative, perhaps idyllic, and certainly capable of taking the listeners’ minds to better times. A message from Rattle and the LSO from 2017 to 2020!

It began with Mahler’s unremitting heavy tread, then there were some bright colours and the performance positively embraced the relief from any impending misery during the tranquil interlude. My only concern was that the cowbells here – and elsewhere – seemed too far off. The Andante moved at a flowing pace and there was warmth with just a hint of rustic awkwardness from the orchestra. Schizophrenically during the Scherzo, moments of calm and quietude alternated with more turbulent passages. (Perhaps for the first time in this symphony, I thought I heard some klezmer rhythms.)

Best of all was the Finale, from a somewhat downbeat opening, it all marched on in a strong and measured fashion. There was an emotional sweep to the more lyrical second subject and any sudden moments of euphoria were punctuated by the exclamations of the tragedy that was to come. Overlooking more faint cowbells, the two hammer blows – seen in closeup – had an awesome impact. Rattle and his excellent ensemble forged on with the vast kaleidoscopic musical canvas and it was all mightily impressive. A final orchestral outburst was nothing less than the primal scream (Urschrei) of a soul in deep despair; yet despite this tumult at the end, I felt some solace and more than a little optimism that happier days will return soon.

Jim Pritchard

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