A feast of sonorities from Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 35 – Berg and Mahler: Leila Josefowicz (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 10.8.2023. (CK)

Sakari Oramo conducts violinist Leila Josefowicz and the BBC SO © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Berg – Violin Concerto
Mahler – Symphony No.7

Late in last year’s BBC Prom season, Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic performed Mahler’s Seventh, which they were playing all around Europe (and, I think, further afield). The performance was ecstatically received. Petrenko’s recording of the work (with a different orchestra) was Gramophone‘s Recording of the Year. Yet that well-honed Prom performance left me a little dissatisfied. It was extremely fine, and Petrenko’s rapport with his players was a joy: but if a Mahler performance is technically flawless (I felt this about Sir Simon Rattle’s Royal Festival Hall Third Symphony with the Berliners in 2011), is there a risk that something essential – Neville Cardus called it the Mahlerian ectoplasm – will drain out of it? I am on dodgy ground here; not everyone will agree that a Klaus Tennstedt Mahler performance – where there was often a feeling that things could fall apart at any moment – was closer to The Real Thing.

Anyway, here we were, almost a year later: the indisposition of Sir Andrew Davis (get well soon, Sir Andrew) left the valiant Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra two days to prepare the Seventh (a change from the originally scheduled Tenth). The only Mahler I had previously heard Oramo perform were the Fourth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde – both of them in Birmingham, both very fine – so I was curious to hear him take on the toughest nut (some would say) of them all.

The opening minutes had me wondering if the symphony needed stronger accents and less variation in tempo: Oramo seemed to want to slow down in the more reflective stretches and allow the tension to sag. But his spacious, unhurried view of the symphony soon came into its own. The tenor horn bloomed wonderfully in the wide spaces of the Albert Hall; and I don’t think I have ever heard a player more attentive to Mahler’s hairpin dynamics, to magical effect. And that was the key to Oramo’s reading: this crazy symphony sprouts instrumental solos, duets and so on in all directions, and Oramo and his players allowed us to hear and to savour them all. Much of the playing had a chamber music delicacy; and I can honestly say that I heard things that I had never heard before.

This performance would not have worked if the standard of playing had been below par. But it was marvellous: the brass and woodwind principals were superb; the principal horn in particular had a wonderful night, and those piercing, stratospheric trumpet leaps were fearlessly taken. The string playing had a cleanness and transparency more suited to this symphony than a richer, plusher sound. I could give dozens of examples of instrumental felicities that made their mark as the weird pageant passed by; whilst I will award a representative bouquet to the principal flute.

Towards the end of the first Nachtmusik, over a muffled tramping in cellos and double basses, the flute has to play a ten-note phrase, with wide intervals, pianissimo, inside a single bar. Mahler marks it fluchtig – ‘fleeting’, or perhaps ‘flighty’. What she (in this performance) has to do is to flutter about between the barlines without touching them, like a moth in a cage. Two bars later she has to do it again – though, this being Mahler, it isn’t an exact repeat: then, half a bar later, a briefer phrase – an echo. If this hushed little episode is played imaginatively – fleetingly – as it was here, it has a quietly potent effect.

Before leaving this movement, some briefer bouquets – horns bold and secure in the atmospheric opening; two ruthes rather than one, giving proper prominence to their dry, rattling crescendo; a perky bassoon march; a lovely diminuendo at the end. In the shadowy Scherzo, wailing clarinets, booming tuba, an eructating bassoon … Oramo working hard to make sure everything was audible; and again, an ending finely done. The second Nachtmusik was beautifully played at a flowing pace, with no self-indulgence, no expressive over-egging. Another lovely horn solo. And so to the finale’s explosion of timpani and the bright blaze of brass: still no sense of hurry, no attempt to force the music into some sort of coherence (asked during the interval broadcast how to make the symphony cohere, Oramo retorted ‘It’s not meant to be coherent’. Revealingly, he thought that in this work the focus should be not on Mahler the composer but on Mahler the conductor. ‘Embrace the sounds – physically grab them’).

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC SO in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Some performances of this final movement find an all-pervading sense of irony; Oramo’s was genial, almost gemütlich, with a strong sense of play. Here again there was playing of great clarity and delicacy. The cowbells at the end were rather too discreet – the player could have taken inspiration from the lady splendidly belabouring the tubular bells – and the final chord was not quite a single detonation: but those are minor quibbles.

Is this the only way to play the fascinating Seventh? Of course not. Oramo’s interpretation, leaning to the Romantic rather than the Modernist, had an integrity of its own, achieved through fine conducting and playing. A last litmus test: in some performances of the finale I have felt the sooner it is over, the better. Here, I felt a genuine sadness that we were approaching the symphony’s end. Given the fraught circumstances and the last-minute change of symphony, the performance was almost miraculous. How hard this conductor and orchestra work! In a few days they play the Pejačević symphony, and, a few days later, Mahler’s other great open-air symphony, the Third. Hats off to them.

Last season, Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker offered us the symphony on its own; here, in a substantial and demanding programme, it followed a performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto, with Leila Josefowicz as soloist. It was rivetingly done, unsparing in its Mahlerian depiction of the horror of illness and death, the fragility of life and love. The Bach chorale on the four clarinets brought balm, as always, but as a gateway to final repose: there was sweetness at the close, but no suggestion of transcendence. In parts of the first movement Josefowicz’s tone came close to being swamped by the orchestra, but her fine-grained playing held its own – even when she turned towards the orchestra, communing with the orchestral violins as much as with the audience. The brief crying of a child in the audience during a hushed passage was unexpectedly poignant. At the end, after an extended ovation, Josefowicz held the score aloft before giving us the Largo from Bach’s Third Sonata for Solo Violin, holding thousands in thrall to a single and beautiful thread of sound.

Chris Kettle

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