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.




Matt said...

I came across this blog when looking for a review of the Prom (I'm a regular concert-goer, but this was my first Prom). I'd like to comment on/take issue with two points you raise, both regarding the audience.

First, the audience noise during the "Luftpause" between the first two movements. I agree that there should be a silence here, and indeed I believe this was directed as such in Mahler's notes. However, there is also the point that many people are unlikely to know this (not being a particular addicionado of Mahler, I only recalled it when Daniel Harding sat down). Like it or not, despite the efforts of many excellent orchestras in the UK, and even of Classic FM, classical music has a somewhat fusty, closed-to-newcomers, reputation. Part of the role of the Proms should surely be to open up classical music to those who might ordinarily not attend concerts, and therefore I think it's quite unfair to castigate audience members for a little noise here, although from the front of the upper circle, I didn't notice much other than the "obligatory" over the top bouts of coughing.

More annoying was the entrance of many audience members who had not arrived in time for the start of the first movement. If this was because the Royal Albert Hall was not rapid enough at processing entries, then it's obviously not the audience's fault, but latecomers should have been asked to wait until the end of the second movement.

Anyway, your second point on the audience, regarding the ridiculous whooping of "Bravo", which sometimes seems the result of a bizarre competition as to who can shout first, is one I fully agree with. It seemed to emanate from the floor area, maybe from someone who'd had a bit much to drink and couldn't hold it in, but nonetheless it smacks of rugby club bravado. At any length, I find the shouting of "Bravo" at any time pretty stupid - I wouldn't have the temerity to tell Tiger Woods that he'd played a good golf shot, nor to tell Steven Spielberg that I admired the direction of his latest film. I think such praise can only really come from one's peers, or someone who feels (probably falsely) that they are authorised to be able to grant such an opinion. But then, this too is only my opinion.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you for taking the trouble to comment, Matt. I pretty much agree with you. Regarding the silence, or lack of one, between the first and second movements, what happened is not the end of the world (though I agree that latecomers should certainly not have been let in). I am not convinced one needed to know anything in order not to chatter; surely remaining quiet would be the normal course of events between movements, and if one wasn't sure, for perfectly understandable reasons, one would err on the side of caution. (Just as if I were in an unfamiliar setting, for instance a mosque or a football match, I should wait to see what others did first.) The BBC and/or RAH could readily have helped matters by making an announcement beforehand; that would actually seem the most sensible thing to do, thereby enabling at least the possibility of the reflection Mahler requested.

But anyway, yes, if the lack of a silence were a pity, it was the behaviour at the end that was the bigger problem. I also agree entirely re 'Bravo', etc. Such idiotic display seems, far from incidentally, to be a more or less entirely male affair, just like booing. It is a pathetic attempt to ape the worst aspects of Italian opera and we can all do without it.

RichardC said...

Agree very much with your review - and definitely not with Tim Ashley's silly comments in the Guardian ( - and would add one small thing. The audience response at the end was indeed terrible (how much one longed for a period of reflective quiet), but at least it wasn't as awful as the audiences at the Met, who persist in applauding even before the music has ended. I remember one performance of Siegfried there, when the idiots in the audience quite ruined the end of Act 2 that joyful mini-symphony as Siegfried heads off to find Brunhilde. Grrrr!