Thursday 23 August 2007

Prom 51: Mahler's Third Symphony (Abbado)

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no.3 in D minor

22 August 2007

Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano)
Trinity Boys' Choir
London Symphony Chorus
Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Claudio Abbado (conductor)

This was always going to be a special Prom, and so it turned out. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra is a unique organisation, its nucleus being the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (also founded by Claudio Abbado), its principals some of the world's finest solo and chamber musicians, joining the orchestra in order to work with Abbado. That musicians of the calibre of Kojla Blacher, Wolfram Christ, Clemens and Veronika Hagen, Jacques Zoon, Sabine Meyer, and Reinhold Friedrich are willing to do this is testament to Abbado's personal and musical standing. It is also a direct consequence of his very particular way of making music. In many ways, he is an encourager, a facilitator of chamber music writ large; in no sense is he a podium dictator. Allowing his musicians the initiative to try out their own ideas has always been important to Abbado; the results were to be heard during this Prom.

The last performance I had attended was that given by Boulez and the Staatskapelle Berlin in the April Mahler-Zyklus. That was a commanding reading indeed, although the orchestra made a few more slips than one might have expected. Nevertheless, Boulez's structural authority was stamped upon every bar. Here, the orchestra, doubtless aided by the almost unlimited rehearsal
time that its special circumstances permit, was closer to perfection in terms of execution, although there were a very few, very minor slips (for instance, rather surprisingly, during the posthorn solo). More importantly, this sounded - and I hope I am not unduly romanticising, given my knowledge of Abbado's orchestral philosophy - as though the basic sound and flow emanated from the orchestra, which Abbado could then shape, or not, as necessary. A sense of chamber music, however vast the canvas, informed the performance, never more so than in the final Adagio, in which one could have been speaking of an augmented (vastly augmented, mind) string quartet. That is fair enough, given the four-part string harmony upon which the movement is based. Put like this, Abbado's might seem the preferable path; it is certainly a thing of wonder. However, I am not quite so sure. Mahler himself was after all a conductor of the old school, and was utterly unashamed to put his stamp on proceedings. This is conductor's music, whether the conductor be a musician as different as a Boulez or a Bernstein. Both conductors, in their very different ways, have made this symphony theirs, whilst remaining true to its spirit. One might with justice say that, in his more self-effacing, yet utterly musicianly, way, Abbado does the same - and I think that would be the right thing to say. Ultimately, I think that one's judgement - perhaps 'opinion' would be better - is a personal matter, when one is dealing with music-making at this level. However, I was not quite so overwhelmed by Abbado's reading as I had been by that of Boulez. (The vastly superior acoustic of the Berlin Philharmonie as compared to the Royal Albert Hall may have played a role too.)

The great drama of the first movement unfolded with inevitability, though I am sure this was an inevitability only won through prolonged study and immersion in the score. The numerous and varied happenings as 'Summer marches in', from the opening not-Brahms horn calls, through the twitterings of nature, to the concluding cataclysm of the militaristic brass fanfares, were all sharply characterised, yet part of a greater whole. It rather felt like watching the different stages of a great procession: those anxious souls from the final movement of the Second Symphony's Day of Judgement sprang to mind. Rarely if ever has the 'natural' - in fact highly 'artificial' - beauty of the minuet sounded quite so melting. I recalled that Abbado is a great conductor of the so-called 'Impressionism' of Debussy, and there was something of that spirit here: never imprecise, though, but full of shimmering strings and woodwind, and utterly flexible. It seems invidious to single out any one soloist, but Jacques Zoon's magic flute was just that, its purity of tone as refreshing as water from a mountain spring. The contrasts of the third movement, between the cryings of the animals of the forest, and the sudden appearances of new, yet old metaphysical vistas - the nostalgic posthorn - were heart-stopping. When it came to the great climax - Pan's self-revelation? - Abbado was slightly restrained, but there was no need to milk the moment any more. On its own terms, this worked perfectly.

In the fourth movement, Anna Larsson proved as fine a soloist for Abbado as she had for his Berlin Philharmonic recording (actually taped live at the Royal Festival Hall). Every word of Nietzsche's text was audible - but this was about far more than fine diction. Her shading was ever attentive to the verbal and musical nuances of the composite text of words and music (the two do not always fit so perfectly together). Abbado was, of course, supremely supportive, apparently following her rather than the other way round, although I suspect that there was in fact a great deal of give and take on both sides. The oases of stillness, never without their Nietzschean danger, were never overdone, but once again fitted into the symphony's indomitable progression. (How could William Walton, quoted in the programme notes, ever have thought of saying 'It's all very well, but you can't call that a symphony'? I hardly need add that history has tended to judge Mahler's symphonies as a little more consequential than his...)

The transition to the magical fifth movement was handled seamlessly: not in the sense of actually being run together, but quite correctly, as the ascent to the next level in the cosmic hierarchy, from 'What night tells me (man)' to 'What the morning bells tell me (angels)'. The choral contributions could hardly be faulted, and the lightness of touch was almost that of a Mendelssohn scherzo. (It is probably no coincidence that Abbado has always been such a great conductor of Mendelssohn.) This brief movement was thus perfectly judged to prepare us for the final 'What loves tell me', that is the realm of God Himself.

Like Boulez in April, Abbado took the Adagio relatively swiftly, but in neither case was this precipitately so. The ebb and flow, as I mentioned earlier, was that of chamber music, as opposed to Boulez's more overtly Wagnerian approach. The richness of the strings was exemplary, although here as throughout, I might have preferred a little more bass. That is 'fundamental' to Mahler in every sense, as Bernard Haitink has always shown. The tremulous beauty of Reinhold Friedrich's trumpet line could hardly have been better judged in its subtle vibrato. I certainly did not feel short-changed: this was a very fine performance. If, as I said, ultimately Boulez came closer to 'my' Mahler, then I am making a personal claim more than anything else. Abbado and his orchestra readily deserved the extended applause they received.