Friday 29 August 2014

Prom 57 - Swedish RSO/Harding: Mahler, 29 August 2014

Royal Albert Hall

Symphony no.2 in C minor

Kate Royal (soprano)
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano)
Swedish Radio Choir (chorus master: Peter Dijkstra)
Philharmonia Chorus (chorus master: Stefan Bevier)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Harding (conductor)

This was, all told, an impressive performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony from Daniel Harding, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, their soloists and choruses. Harding’s direction avoided egotism without becoming faceless, plotted Mahler’s narrative with a keen sense of drama that came nowhere near the vulgar theatrics we too often hear in this music, and, no mean feat this in itself, managed soon enough to rise above the Royal Albert Hall’s dreadful acoustics, in a performance that balanced instruments as well as competing dramatic imperatives.

The first movement opened with fine attack from the Swedish cellos and double basses. String tone did not always sound so full in general, but that was probably a matter more of the aforementioned acoustic, to which my ears soon adjusted. Harding attended to detail, whether in terms of dynamic contrasts or rubato, without the mannerism of undue micromanagement. Woodwind were nicely pungent, brass splendidly militaristic, but just as important, indeed probably more so, was the sense of awe and unease in those extraordinary Mahlerian liminal zones. This was not a case of rehashing a performance of a work many of us have perhaps heard too often, at least in mediocre performances or worse; it drew us in to listen. Vistas, both physical and metaphysical, opened up, often subtly, but without shying away from grander gestures, well prepared, when necessary. If there were a few occasions when, in abstracto at least, I might have favoured slightly more gradual shifts of tempo, the well-nigh Wagnerian cut and thrust largely compensated; indeed, I thought more than once of Wagner’s semi-serious desire for an ‘invisible theatre’. There was no denying that a musical mind was at work here – and that is more important than whether everyone might have completely agreed with every decision. In the recapitulation, material sounded properly changed in the light of what had gone before. There was nice violin portamento to savour too: not self-regarding, but still a delight. Rarely have I heard the downward scalic harp passages so charged with menace; Boulez’s performances of this work came to mind.

What a pity, then, that an ill-mannered section of the audience decided to talk through the silence that should have followed. Surely, aware of Mahler’s intentions or no, the sign that Harding had sat down rather than left the stage, ought to have given a clue. In any case, the second movement proceeded with a winning lilt, rubato again well judged, and warm strings. A flute as pure as a mountain spring intervened and made its point. There was a lovely sense of a serenading band writ large, though actually not so very large, rendering turbulence all the more eruptive when it came. Pizzicato strings evoked suitably spooky marionettes – yet with good nature too: this was no mere house of horrors.

Timpani announced the third movement attacca, in spirit as well as in the letter. Artlessness and artfulness, innocence and guile were splendidly balanced in the twisting turns of what many of us now unavoidably think of as this pre-Berio (Sinfonia) river. Sardonic woodwind helped; so did a fine sense of irony that Harding and his players never sought to overplay. The fishes were relished, but so was the preacher: perhaps a shade here of Ecclesiastes as well as St Anthony of Padua? And crucially, good musical values, not least clarity and direction of counterpoint underlay such ideas. The music sounded more Bachian than we often hear – and to good effect. Not that dreams and phantasmagoria were neglected, but they made their point all the more strongly with countervailing tendencies given their due. Thematic connections with music that had gone and music that was yet to come were apparent and meaningful throughout.

In ‘Urlicht’, Christianne Stotijn proved straightforward but never simplistic. Words were crystal clear. The brass response to her opening line sounded as if an ambivalent chorale or even equale: was this death or something else that was heralded? As so often with Mahler, either/or misses the point. The Wunderhorn character of the ‘song’ was not forgotten, but rather sublimated in its new context.

The finale emerged ‘naturally’, art concealing art, from its predecessor, whilst also audibly sowing thematic seeds for what was to come. There are, of course, many dissimilarities here with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but the similarities registered rather strongly, again being permitted to make their own point instead of being underlined. Once more, drama came to the fore, but without sacrificing the more ‘purely’ musical dynamism of form. (The dichotomy is false, but nevertheless merits an occasional heuristic mention.) The interplay between the (otherworldly?) off-stage band and on-stage musicians was truly disconcerting: death and resurrection are, after all, no easy things. Hesitant steps thereafter did not want for awe, finally preparing the way for the chorus’s entry, for the re-entry of the word – and perhaps even for the entry of the Word? We could not be sure, and that, surely, is Mahler’s point. Kate Royal’s diction was initially poor, sounding more akin to an operatic ‘vocalise’ than to the Lieder-like contribution of Stotijn, but, to Royal’s credit, Stotijn’s return had her improve her game considerably. In any case, the Swedish Radio Choir and Philharmonia Chorus were on fine form; one could have taken dictation from them. If I say that the rest took care of itself, that would of course be an exaggeration, but it flowed so ‘naturally’ – that word again – from what had been prepared that it almost seemed to do so. And that chord on ‘Gott’ sent shivers down the spine, as it must.

What a pity, then, that a loutish minority did its best to ruin things by denying even the briefest of silences, competing instead to issue the first farmyard noise in response. Such selfish exhibitionism has as little place in a Mahler audience as in a Mahler performance.