Violin Concerto in D minor Mahler
Gordan Nikolitch (violin)
Lisa Milne (soprano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sunday, January 09, 2005 Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Although Mahler is considered the forerunner of Viennese Expressionism, his music often juxtaposed with that of the Second Viennese School, it makes equal sense to place him in the context of his stylistic antecedents Schumann in particular. Hence this pairing of the latter's final orchestral work
with Mahler's least demonstrative symphony, making for an instructive and rewarding programme.
Composed towards the end of 1853, a year which for Schumann was a 'race against time' as surely as 1828 had been for Schubert, the Violin Concerto remained inaccessible for over eight decades and has more or less established itself as a repertoire piece only in the last quarter century. It is a work that inspires true commitment from its interpreters witness Gidon Kremer's darkly ruminative Proms account with Nikolaus Harnoncourt or, more recently, Thomas Zehetmair's exactingly nuanced reading with Simon Rattle. If the present performance left an altogether less intense impression, this was not through mere casualness. Gordan Nikolitch, LSO leader and an experienced soloist and chamber musician in his own right, found the right balance in terms of drawing vibrant expression from the solo part while integrating it firmly into the dense but never opaque orchestral writing.
The opening movement, the finest of the three in all senses, was steered securely but not inflexibly Daniel Harding allowing a degree of expressive license so that the brooding initial atmosphere is felt to be pervasive rather than inescapable. The brief but affecting slow movement last of the 'song without words' that frequently found a place in Schumann's orchestral and chamber works was poetically but not indulgently treated, though the abrupt transition to the finale seemed almost to catch soloist and conductor unawares. Nikolitch and Harding avoided pacing this latter movement as the dogged polonaise that Kremer now favours; instead pointing up expressive contrasts between the robust main theme and its more wistful rejoinder. Both outer movements conclude with expressive diminuendos that were judged to a nicety on this occasion. Whatever the concerto's provenance (and the circumstances of its 'relocation' seem more tenuous the more one goes into them), it remains a fascinatingly equivocal statement: one to which Nikolitch's clear-cut approach undoubtedly did justice.
If Mahler's Fourth Symphony was rather less convincing, this was due to the perception that not for the first time Harding was trying too hard to stamp his imprimatur on music of which he has yet to acquire the measure. Thus his platform rearrangement of the strings (antiphonal violins, and double basses on the left) would have had greater purpose had not the woodwind and brass been allowed to obscure much of the detail during the tutti passages of this, Mahler's first inherently contrapuntal symphony. Then again, Harding's touches of rubato sounded laminated onto the musical expression, rather than arising naturally from it. The first movement's exposition proceeded on a 'stop-start' basis only discovering real momentum as the development nears its climax, and the main themes are then recalled in more expansive guise.
Highlights were a scherzo whose whimsical flights of fancy were deftly articulated with Nikolitch, back in the leader's chair, moving between his regular and re-tuned violins with obvious relish and a finale in which Lisa Milne's unaffected vocal line provided a conduit around which Harding was able to bring out felicities of detail in this, the most directly appealing of Mahler's Wunderhorn settings. A pity he seemed unable or unwilling to allow the expansive slow movement to unfold on its own, 'restful'
(Mahler's designation) terms. Instead, this lucidly sustained example of developing variation had more than a touch of the synthetic about it Harding adopting tempi marginally too slow or too fast in themselves, via transitions that were similarly tardy in conception. Not that the orchestral playing as a whole lacked conviction or commitment: rather that, as recent performances of the Tenth Symphony have suggested, Harding still has a fair way to go before he can be considered a natural Mahlerian.