Monday 24 February 2014

Walker/LSO/Harding - Huw Watkins and Mahler, 23 February 2014

Barbican Hall

Huw Watkins – Flute Concerto (world premiere)
Mahler – Symphony no.1 in D major

Adam Walker (flute)
London Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Harding (conductor) 

Adam Walker had already premiered one of Huw Watkins’s works, the Capriccio for flute and piano, in 2010. Upon Walker’s award of a Fellowship from the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, and consequent funding for a commission, both from the Trust and from individual patrons, Walker approached Watkins to write a concerto, whose premiere we were now to hear. According to Schott’s website, the concerto is ‘built around Walker’s playing,’ the composer having noted ‘especially Walker’s “amazing sound and control of his instrument”, which he constantly had in mind during the composition process”.’ Insofar as I could tell from a first hearing and without a score, there seemed to be no doubt not only of Walker’s technical facility but also of his musical commitment, ably supported by the London Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding. Phrasing and variegated tone suggested a repertoire work Walker had been playing for years rather than a first performance. Watkins could hardly have hoped for superior advocacy.

Cast in the traditional three movements, Allegro molto, Andante, and Allegro molto, his concerto is also thoroughly traditional in terms of their character: they seem not only to function as recognisable quasi-symphonic first movement, slow movement and rondo finale, but also to possess ‘character’ tallying with their placing. The germination of the first movement’s material from a flickering cell – if a cell may be admitted to flicker! – is clear throughout, Walker’s finely-spun flute line permitting the listener to trace his or her way without difficulty. It is perhaps easy to overlook the technical problems in ensuring an instrument such as the flute makes itself heard against a sizeable orchestra, but this never seemed to be a problem for composer or musicians. There is certainly real craft at work here. The slow movement continues, as indeed does the dance-like finale, to make its way in a recognisably tonal idiom. Sonority and command of the orchestra seemed to have much in common with the music of a composer such as Julian Anderson, though in the context of this particular concert, it was interesting to note, especially during the slow movement, moments at which new vistas appeared to open up, perhaps not so breathtakingly as in Mahler’s case, but offering an interesting correspondence, whether merely fortuitous or no. Doubtless this concerto will prove a valuable addition to the flute repertoire.

Mahler’s First Symphony followed the interval, and received for the most part an estimable performance from Harding and the LSO: unquestionably a relief following Valery Gergiev’s dubious dabblings with Mahler’s music. The first movement was perhaps marginally less successful. Whilst Harding’s disinclination to drive the music was greatly appreciated, there were occasions when tension sagged a little, though certainly not in its thrilling conclusion. There was beauty, though, in the sounds of the Nature with which the music comes to initial life, the LSO’s technical ability second to none, string harmonics holding none of the fears they still do for some orchestras. Harding’s orchestral layout, violins split left and right, was much appreciated in this movement and elsewhere for enabling Mahler’s counterpoint fully to register. The second movement was taken relatively ‘straight’, as indeed was the symphony as a whole, but emerged no worse for that: there is nothing worse than underlining every ‘point’, as if Mahler cannot be trusted to speak for himself. Much the same could be said of the funeral march, its eeriness emerging from the material rather than being imposed upon it. Contrasts were undeniable, but never excessive, in a movement whose performance was possessed of considerable cumulative power. The halting journey to redemption, or whatever the apparent triumph of the finale may be, was convincingly traced. If the awkward corners of this and the first movement were not entirely concealed, that is more testament to Mahler’s relative immaturity than to any shortcoming in performance; it takes a Kubelík or a Boulez truly to have one forget the problems, and there is something indeed to be said for a reading that places such trust in what remains a staggeringly original first symphony. Not that Harding was in any sense staid: the final peroration blazed with theatricality, horns and trombones standing to attention. Claudio Abbado, to whose memory this concert was dedicated, would surely have admired the continuing work of his ‘little genius’. Harding’s heartfelt, eloquent tribute in the programme matched that on the podium. A black mark is awarded, though, for the programme’s description of the work as the ‘Titan’, the Jean Paul-inspired epithet inappropriate to the work in its final version as heard here.