Truly beautiful Berlioz and Mahler from the Philharmonia under Santtu-Matias Rouvali

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz, Mahler: Anu Komsi (soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Santtu-Matias Rouvali (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London 1.2.2024. (JR)

Santtu-Matias Rouvali © Mark Allan

Berlioz Les nuits d’été

Mahler – Symphony No.4 in G major

This was, in all respects, a truly beautiful concert.

Berlioz was in the middle of a divorce, though he had met the woman who was to become his second wife, when he put together the set of songs we know as Les nuits d’été. The six songs were never actually intended as a song cycle; in fact, each was dedicated to a different singer, whose varying voice types demanded changes to the original keys. The Philharmonia Orchestra gave us the version for soprano.

Julia Bullock, the Philharmonia’s Featured Artist this season, pulled out at the eleventh hour, having injured her back and was consequently unable to travel. Her name and profile were already in the printed programme. In stepped Anu Komsi, seasoned and experienced Finnish soprano (and wife of conductor Sakari Oramo). Komsi is a graduate of Helsinki’s famed Sibelius Academy and has performed with an impressive list of major orchestras; she also, incidentally, likes to sing jazz. She has been described as having a ‘dynamic coloratura voice’. She brought great theatricality to both the Berlioz and, in the second half of the concert, to the final movement of the Mahler symphony. I thought the music and language of the French composer suited her voice better than the angelic refrains of the Mahler, but she will have had precious little time to prepare for this concert. Given the last-minute step-in, she overcame the challenge with considerable aplomb.

Anu Komsi © Jan-Olav Wedin

Komsi’s radiant soprano was most touching when singing very quietly, almost inaudibly – the audience were enraptured. Komsi sang with delicacy and sensitivity; only in the final, more dramatic song ‘L’île inconnue’ did I yearn for some Jessye Norman heft. Komsi’s interpretation was more in the style of Kiri Te Kanawa and Elly Ameling. A pity we were not given the text of the songs in French in the printed programme or on the subtitle board, the English translation seemed a mite urbane.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony sits between the epic drama of his Third Symphony and his monumental Fifth. At the premiere in Munich, the audience had heard his Second, the mighty Resurrection Symphony and found the Fourth a disappointment, in a style they did not expect. One famous conductor even delivered a put down, ‘At least it’s short’. It is certainly a work of transition, a work of sincerity and fragility. It contains many delicacies; for some, eschewing bombast, it is even their favourite Mahler symphony. Mahler, saddened by the critical reception of the work, described it as his ‘persecuted stepchild’.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali, always balletic on the podium, brought out the interwoven layers with skill, tripping through the many beautiful themes of the delightful score and bringing out the best from his orchestra. It was not a perfect technical performance, but certainly a beautiful one. My attention was drawn to the fine clarinet playing of Joint Principal Clarinet Maura Marinucci, and the Leader, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay for his expert (and difficult) playing of the out-of-tune (a tone sharp) violin in the second movement.

A pity that the subtitles failed for much of the final movement, so we were wholly deprived of the fascinating text. Komsi’s German diction was not all that clear. If we consequently were not transported to heaven, probably due to the last-minute change of soloist, we still came away with a smile and a deep sense of repose.

This concert was recorded and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on the evening of Wednesday February 7th; and available on BBC Sounds for 30 days thereafter.

John Rhodes

Leave a Comment