Elder statesman steps in to conduct a majestic Mahler’s Third with the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), London Philharmonic Choir (chorus director: Madeleine Venner), Trinity Boys Choir (chorusmaster: David Swinson) London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London 25.11.2023. (JR)

Sir Mark Elder © Alex Burns

Mahler – Symphony No.3

Robin Ticciati was to have conducted this performance but with just one rehearsal left to go, and with the programme already printed with his name, Ticciati became indisposed. (Oddly, this is not the first time he has had to bow out of a Mahler’s Third.) It was a great fortune for the management of the LPO and the audience at the Royal Festival Hall that Sir Mark Elder was available to step in. (I often wonder when whether managements have an available replacement up their sleeve just for these eventualities).

Elder is now in his mid-seventies and no longer the golden young man at the English National Opera, but very much an Elder Statesman (excuse the pun) of the English classical music scene. Elder conducted a performance with his Hallé Orchestra not very long ago, to huge critical acclaim although many critics found the tempi occasionally rather too slow. True, this performance in London lasted a taxing 110 minutes, swifter performances can get through it in 95 minutes, but while faster speeds might lead to a gain in the thrill factor, it then can lack in grandeur and majesty.

And this was a majestic performance. The orchestra must have had to re-adjust to Elder’s slower tempi but they were clearly in awe of his skill and deep knowledge of the score. Only the odd ragged edge made one wish Elder had been accorded a little more rehearsal time. Of course, the orchestra are old hands with Mahler, thinking back to the eras of Klaus Tennstedt and Bernard Haitink, although there are now few players who will have actually played under them (how times have changed – and in many ways for the good – as it is noteworthy that in the whole first violin section, there was only one male player; and the same in the second violins).

The very slow opening of the symphony gave the whole lengthy first movement (Kräftig entschieden) added resolution and gravitas; the horns and trombones were particularly impressive throughout, especially Mark Templeton, Principal Trombone. The ending of the movement extracted gasps of admiration from the audience.

Conducting throughout without a baton, Elder conducted the central movements with delicacy, at one stage asking only the very back desks of the strings to play. At all stages he wanted to keep his powder dry for the climaxes and aid transparency of orchestral colours. The minuet ended in a magical gossamer shimmer of string sound.

Sir Mark Elder conducts Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano) and the London Philharmonic Orchestra © LPO

Alice Coote looked round the audience imperiously before transporting us to a higher level with a truly magnificent rendition of Nietzsche’s ‘O Mensch! Gib Acht!’, a warning to us all in these turbulent times. Whether soft or loud, this was an exemplary performance and a privilege to have heard. Her sound was always beautiful, German diction clear and perfect, emotion compelling. The oboe’s glissandi accompaniments were spot on.

The posthorn solo was flawlessly delivered by Paul Beniston, on a cornet. Apparently, Mahler first conceived this passage having heard the postal coachman’s postillion, but those instruments had died out (with the horse-drawn postal coaches) by the end of the eighteenth century. Mahler then asked for the passage to be played on a Flugelhorn, but they are nowadays hard to find – Benjamin Zander apparently found one for his performance decades ago in a Viennese junk shop. Whilst the cornet is more mellow than a trumpet, and much easier to hit the top notes than on a flugelhorn, sadly, it does not quite have the same rustic sound.

The boys of Trinity School in Croydon sang their ‘bimms’ and ‘bamms’ with accuracy as far as I could hear (I sang them with the Highgate School choir many decades ago) and were clear and bright in the ‘Die himmlische Freud’ section. It was good to hear them, and the excellent ladies of the LPO Chorus, accompanied by bells which sounded like real church ones.

Elder brought the final movement ‘What Love tells me’ to its triumphant and glorious close with controlled power, and the performance did indeed benefit from its stately tempi, all the better for not being rushed. I did just wonder how different a Ticciati interpretation might have been, and I suppose we will have to wait some time to find that out. Meanwhile the audience made it very clear that they were thrilled to see Sir Mark Elder on the podium and hope he returns to guest conduct soon, now that the end of his tenure with the Hallé is in sight.

John Rhodes

1 thought on “Elder statesman steps in to conduct a majestic Mahler’s Third with the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall”

  1. Sorry to disappoint you John, but as a former Head of Artistic Planning at the Hallé (with Mark Elder of course) I can say, as someone responsible for engaging conductors and soloists, that having conductors in reserve in case of illness would have been a time-consuming luxury. Most conductors’ managers would have regarded us as a nuisance, too! We had an Assistant Conductor on hand, who did, very occasionally, step in, but often, it’s a case of just hitting the phone when the need arises, and the world of artists’ management is extremely responsive to such situations. Occasionally, with a crucial vocal role, I used to check out availabilities in case of a cancellation, with a quiet conversation or two. But booking artists is a time-consuming part of a job which also includes planning and programming the orchestra’s complete diary.


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