Suite (selections) Mozart
Clarinet Concerto in A, K622 Mahler
Michael Collins (basset-clarinet)
Emma Kirkby (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Roger Norrington
Philharmonia Concert - 14th June
Thursday, June 14, 2001 Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Taking two movements each from Bachs orchestral suites 2 and 3 (B minor and D), Mahler added post-Bachian clarinets and piano. Piano? Yes, not what I was expecting either. Suite for organ, harpsichord and orchestra is Mahlers title, duly noted and discussed in the Philharmonia Orchestras programme; Salonens recent recording of it (Sony) is so-described and executed; Chailly performed it thus with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in London last year.
Norrington dropped both the organs sustaining role and the harpsichord (continuo) for the (very effective) piano, which presumably used the harpsichords part. Norrington also opted for a solo violin (rather than Mahlers tutti) to duet with Ken Smiths flute in the first of the two chosen movements the B minors overture using the Philharmonias full strings but refusing them the use of vibrato, which Mahler himself surely wouldnt have done.
Fine performance though, bright and shiny, scholarly and joyous, the wisdom of using antiphonal violins always aurally apparent; Norringtons eight double basses, lined across the back of the platform, added weight without subsidence. Norringtons affection for Suite 3s pair of gavottes made them positively Handelian!
A much reduced string section (three basses) authenticated the Mozart, further achieved by Michael Collins using a basset-clarinet, believed to be what Mozart intended. Allowing that the outer movements were perhaps too nifty, Collinss virtuosity and Norringtons phrasal ease (helped by the merest staccato on the shortest notes) ensured more or less that articulation and shape didnt suffer unduly. Intimate and autumnal, this subtly inflected reading came into its own in the flowing slow movement with a wistful, magically-quiet return of the opening idea, Collins supplying ornamentation to the printed line and relishing the bassets low notes in the finale.
Mahler does without trombones in No.4, an indication of his concern for transparent orchestration in this nostalgic, evocative, even neo-classical symphony.
Its not often these days that Mahler 4 is dispatched in 48 minutes - 55 might be a reasonable average; an hour-plus has been achieved. Bruno Walter and Leopold Ludwig, say, in their recordings are close to Norringtons 48 (how Bachian!) but is it authentic? Willem Megelberg, a close friend of Mahler, in his 1939 Concertgebouw recording (an essential document for anyone commenting on the Fourth) took nearly 58 (17.5, 8.5, 21.5, 10); Norringtons movement timings (15, 8, 17, 8) and his one-tempo, somewhat straitjacketed conducting is in total contrast to Mengelbergs interventionist approach. Nor did Norrington introduce portamento outside of that notated.
In one sense, this was a squeaky-clean rendition allowing Mahlers text the opportunity to speak for itself. Yet, allowing that Norrington might have been in the wrong time-zone and that the composer himself would have been more sectional, Norringtons view had an instinctive period feel - his unsaturated and integrated account proved a refreshing countenance to the obvious indulgence and powerhouse manner of contemporary Mahler performance.
Norrington certainly convinced that everything in the first movement can be related, driving the music on albeit too relentlessly at times despite the Philharmonias nimble and sensitive execution to implied catastrophe, as what might be a childs imagination succumbs to nightmare, a diabolical state retained with the tone-higher violin solo in the succeeding devilish scherzo, which here sounded rushed.
Once again antiphonal violins offered revealing listening from the outset with the seconds tick-tock figuration (no pun intended) to the harps clock-ticking at the lullaby-close (a cross-reference Id not made before) in which Emma Kirkbys pure voice was a timbre-asset; she brought-off a very effective glissando.
Norringtons allusion to time-passing was thought-provoking, as was his with-without use of vibrato without such decoration, violas and cellos at the start of the adagio had a viol-like quality, their sotto voce expression over a march-like bass-tread initiating a nocturnal forest walk. Norringtons demonstrative conducting and facial descriptions got the varied moods across Christopher Cowies lachrymose oboe solos in (iii) had a plangency which wouldnt have been out of place in Bachs St Matthew Passion.
Such reference, and Norringtons individual response, ensured this was a Mahler 4 to extend ones appreciation of it on the never-ending learning-curve that is engaged, internally-grounded listening to music.