Royal drama and exemplary Mahler: the London Philharmonic under Edward Gardner on best form

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brett Dean, Mahler: Emma Bell (soprano), Elsa Dreisig (soprano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 26.4.2023. (JR)

Edward Gardner conducts Elsa Dreisig, Emma Bell, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra © LPO

Brett DeanIn spe contra spem (world première)

Mahler – Symphony No.5

The lighting in the Royal Festival Hall was subdued on entry, yet there was a real buzz in the packed hall – this was clearly going to be an event, not just a concert.

Australian composer Brett Dean, for many years a violist with the Berlin Philharmonic, is coming to the end of his three-year tenure with the London Philharmonic Orchestra as Composer in Residence (he was incidentally, before that, Creative Chair with the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich). He is apparently writing a new opera based on the life and death of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the piece performed in this concert is to form part of that opera. The opera will follow hard on the heels of his very successful Hamlet. It was, so it was claimed, completely by chance that this concert took place a week before the Coronation of Charles the Third.

Although Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor actually never met, Schiller brought them together in his play and Donizetti in his opera: the meeting is bound to be full of anxiety, doubt and tension. In this dramatic scene, Brett Dean (with his librettist Matthew Jocelyn) has used the royal protagonists’ original words, assembled from countless letters, documents and speeches. Queen Elizabeth speaks in English, Mary Queen of Scots in a mixture of French (though born in Scotland, she was brought up in France), Latin and English. Surtitles helped us follow the story, though both sopranos had clear diction.

First, the soloists alternate with their opposing view of the tragic situation, later they are increasingly interwoven, revealing not only points of disagreement but also aspects of sympathy. Mary Queen of Scots relies on her deep-rooted Catholic faith to provide consolation in her destiny.

Emma Bell and Elsa Dreisig (as, respectively, Elizabeth and Mary) rose to the occasion and were over-powering: their high notes and intonation (often challenging) were beyond reproach. Other than the occasional glance at the score, they sang as though they had been singing these parts for years. Regal costumes helped us visualise the scene, Bell in a gown of black ruffled feathers with bright yellow shoes and Dreisig in a more sombre black cape. Brett Dean’s compositional style resembles Mahler in that he uses a large orchestra with plenty of playful percussion, a babbling bassoon and tinkly keyboards (harpsichord and piano). His work is approachable and full of interest; sliding scales on the strings abound. There were plenty of orchestral climaxes, whenever anguish was to be made palpable. Edward Gardner held it all together with the clearest of beats and assistance to the soloists on their entries. The work was given the very warmest reception and we now await the full opera expectantly.

Gardner showed us he is a keen and knowledgeable Mahlerian with this high-quality performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Of course, Mahler is in this orchestra’s DNA if one thinks back to the years of Bernard Haitink and Klaus Tennstedt, even though the vast majority of the players are now fairly new. I – and the rest of the audience, judging by the cheers – was much taken by the Principal Horn Annemarie Federle, only appointed a few months ago. Federle is only 20, yet commands her instrument like a veteran, with the cleanest and clearest of tone. Paul Beniston, principal trumpet, also performed with consummate precision. The sonorous bombast of the trio of trombones could also not be overlooked.

Gardner took a no-nonsense approach to the work, understanding its architecture even though the symphony was described as manic-depressive at the time of its composition. It is a jumbled and dark until we reach that famous Adagietto and the blazing, uplifting Rondo finale. Many details were well highlighted, dynamics and tempi could never be faulted; the orchestra were on top form, the performance was of recording quality and cameras were in (somewhat distracting) attendance for Marquee TV for future broadcast. You can also catch it on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 16th May.

Mahler lovers can look forward to the opening concert of the London Philharmonic’s next season when Edward Gardner tackles the huge Second ‘Resurrection’ Symphony on September 23rd. Some weeks later (on 25th November) Robin Ticciati will conduct Mahler’s Third Symphony.

John Rhodes

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