Mahler
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor

London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mikko Franck
Mikko Franck is the new kid on the block. In his early ’twenties, he brings a refreshingly new slant to core repertoire.
He comes with a prop – a chair on which he sits between movements or leans on to swivel (he is not obviously handicapped); he doesn’t stand on a podium but prefers the platform – the executive on the shop-floor.
Suggestions of gimmickry can be discarded for Finland-born Franck has a definite and thought-through view of the music he conducts. He will court controversy no doubt, partly because of his penchant for slow tempi. That’s welcome – for it belies that you have to be old to be slow, and interpretative malaise is swept aside; whatever brickbats Franck garners it will not be for being flash or impetuous. And slow tempi … well, if nothing else, one has more opportunity to analyse, therefore learn – and listening and learning are inextricably linked.
Learning plays a part in an LSO Discovery Concert. For half-an-hour or so here Richard McNicol gave a bit of background to Mahler 5, a whistle-stop tour of the work breaking-down contrapuntal layers of key moments, which were illustrated by the LSO. It was well done; McNicol is an enthusiastic guide, both expert and friendly.
Deconstruction and illumination were a significant part of Franck’s individual view in the complete performance that followed. At 82 minutes, it’s the slowest account I’ve heard and am ever likely to hear. But the stopwatch is no real guide.
This rendition could not have had a better beginning - a heroic account of the opening trumpet solo from Rod Franks. Knowing previous examples of Franck’s work, it’s easy to anticipate that he’ll take his time and intervene. Here the opening ’funeral march’ began ’normally’. Then he wound the tempo down by degrees. The passionate central outburst was exactly that, followed by an intensified resumption of being sucked down into something ever blacker, the final pizzicato being unexpectedly effete.
A shame that Franck didn’t launch straight into the tempestuous second movement, which acts as a gigantic development. Sure, Franck can be predictable – if the music is slow, he’ll take it slower; yet there’s a keen structural brain at work too. And his textural balances were wonderfully lucid, the LSO responding with some fabulous playing. One thought of three notable Mahlerians, their characteristics prismed through Franck’s individuality: Bernstein – emotion without hysteria; Boulez – instrumental clarity without coolness; and Barbirolli – warmth without upholstery.
Franck’s no-rush stance didn’t descend to heel-dragging; indeed his Hindemithian concern for counterpoint always made for engrossing listening. If the stopwatch doesn’t lie – movements of 15, 18, 21, 12 and 16 minutes – it also doesn’t report that they didn’t appear to be these lengths. With each movement subtly distended, Franck’s penetrative mind-games with the music aided its inherent neuroses – delayed upbeats distorted the funeral march’s rhythm at its final appearance; the ability to turn on a sixpence cafĂ©-music serenade from uncertainty to tumult underlined the schizophrenia of the ’Scherzo’.
As no mere interlude, and rather chaste here for a ’love letter’ (from Mahler to Alma, his wife), the ’Adagietto’ at 12 minutes was no longer than some other conductors (Bernstein, Ozawa … but try Hermann Scherchen’s 15 in Philadelphia in 1964 – on CD from Tahra or in a Philadelphia Orchestra box). The glinting harp reported its crepuscular note clusters like so many stars above the intimate (and quietly ravishing) strings, the climax given sustained eloquence and seamlessly arrived at.
If the ’Finale’ didn’t quite have its wit and joy unconfined, but certainly its Bachian inspiration revealed in blend and gait, the symphony as a whole was unfolded with logic and interesting ideas, and little to suggest affectation or being different for the sake of it. One wonders how Franck will develop and how his interpretations will alter. On this occasion, the ’discovery’ audience probably didn’t quite appreciate what Franck was doing – indeed, for anyone new to this symphony, his singular view might have proved disconcerting. Nevertheless, Franck’s fascinating conception found the LSO in convincing and convinced form.
  • The following night, the LSO repeated Mahler 5 with Mikko Franck as part of its subscription series – Richard Whitehouse reports here
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