Saturday, October 30, 2010 St John's, Waterloo, London
Reviewed by Bob Briggs
Dominic Nudd’s excellent programme-note went into great detail concerning Mahler’s private life at the time of Symphony 10’s composition and described how Alma’s affair with Walter Gropius, and the composer’s discovery of it, informed the music he was writing. I knew none of this so I found myself listening to the work as if with new ears.
From a purely technical point of view, Mahler’s final symphonic work is a daunting prospect for any orchestra, with its apocalyptic climaxes in the outer movements, a strange vision of Purgatory and two scherzos, one rhythmically disruptive and the other light-hearted. Interpretively it’s a minefield. That Jonathan Butcher and his orchestra came out at the end triumphant is credit to them all. What is even more astonishing, considering the complexities of the work, is the fact that the Westminster Philharmonic is a non-professional orchestra.
A performance of a work of this size – it plays for about 80 minutes – will stand or fall by the conductor’s vision of the music. Butcher had obviously spent much time considering his interpretation, working out where the music was going, ensuring that the agonies of the piece didn’t overshadow the introspection and deeply disturbing personal circumstances surrounding its composition.
The opening Adagio started with a slight indecision from the viola section – this is a hideously exposed line, and not one for the faint-hearted – but things quickly came together and the movement progressed with well-built climaxes and a shattering mountain peak of dissonance. The brief, pivotal ‘Purgatorio’ movement, the third, on which the whole structure hinges, was very well done, and this is worth noting for there isn’t sufficient music for a conductor to inject any real interpretation for it is gone almost in the blink of an eye. The scherzos which flank it were violent and playful by turns, the Ländler of the first being especially well judged. But it was the final Adagio which showed the strength and ardour of Butcher’s concept which was quite hallucinatory in its passionate outpouring. The faster middle section was well integrated into the progress of the whole and the final earth-shattering climax burst out of the music almost unbidden. It says much for Butcher’s approach that although we were prepared for this, from Nudd’s writing, it still managed to rivet one, and overpower the senses.
Overall, this was a fine performance, every department of the Westminster Philharmonic emerged covered in glory – especially the very large woodwind section, so many of the players having significant solo roles. But, best of all, never did the music become mawkish, as can so often happen with Mahler.