If Mahler’s re-touching of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is less interventionist than his editing of the ‘Eroica’ (played by the LPO a month or so ago), this excellent performance nevertheless gave some interesting insights as to Mahler’s view of the music as a pragmatic and imaginative conductor. Marin Alsop, impressively conducting from memory but with no contrariness to the original score that she has already assimilated, gave what one assumes we have inherited from Mahler’s score, not just the changes of scoring and dynamics, but also his
tempos – spacious in the first two movements (particularly the second one, here somewhat funereal if soaring in climaxes), rather light-footed in the scherzo, the music gambolling along, the trio opening-up a vista of mountains, and the finale quite impetuous.
Whether everything convinces is another matter – be it some fey changes of dynamics, or violin passages raised an octave – Mahler’s desire to clarify Beethoven’s intentions in the light of orchestras becoming larger, particularly the numbers of string-playing personnel, may be heard as being successful, other emendations being more concerned with interpretation. With antiphonal violins in position, de rigueur
, Alsop was totally immersed in this ‘alternative’ version of a time-honoured classic (and observed Mahler’s cutting of the outer-movements’ repeats), the LSO playing magnificently as if all the changes to the score were an everyday affair. In one sense, it sounded like Beethoven 7, save there were innumerable subtleties and some outright alterations, the music at once familiar, fresh and sometimes obliquely viewed.
If it would be difficult to imagine 'Mahler’s Beethoven 7' being better done than here; similarly Leonore No.3, which was unveiled in Mahler’s visitation (he used to include the work to separate the final two scenes of “Fidelio”, which Leonard Bernstein also did on his great Deutsche Grammophon recording of it). From Mahler, via Alsop, the opening was luxuriantly slow, very expressive and with potent drama, woodwinds doubled (as in the symphony). If the occasional hiatus of halting punctuation (Mahler’s no doubt) slightly got in the way of the forward flow, this was a performance of greasepaint and with an offstage trumpet solo (here from on-high behind the audience) that did indeed capture the “barracks” quality that Mahler suggested should be present. One wondered about the use of vibrato, and whether, pace
Roger Norrington’s comments that its use came later, how much of it would have been prevalent when Mahler himself conducted; also the use of hard sticks for the timpani, for while thrilling as such (and superbly played by the always-welcome Antoine Bedewi) the sound seemed at-odds with the Romantic and revisionary terms we were hearing the music.
In the seven songs by Alma Mahler (née Schindler), her settings were presented not with the piano accompaniment that was perhaps the limit of her abilities but with carefully crafted orchestrations by Colin and David Matthews – Colin responsible for ‘In meines Vaters Garten’ and ‘Erntelied’, David the rest – both composers ideally aware of the milieu in which Alma composed. Given some of the songs were written in 1901 (the others in 1911), it may have been that Alma was still a Schindler (she married Gustav Mahler the following year) for some of them, but such pedantry need not detain us, for while the songs are perhaps lacking ultimate distinction, they are each attractive and not without an unsuspected modulation and harmony, as well as being touching, something that the Matthews-brothers’ sophisticated and skilful scoring beautifully highlights; the orchestra is ‘standard’ while adding such instruments as cor anglais, bass clarinet, harp, and the very occasional use of triangle and gong. Alma’s teacher, Zemlinsky, can certainly be discerned, as can Richard Strauss, and the Schoenberg of “Gurrelieder”. Sarah Connolly was a thoroughly sympathetic singer, generous, intimate and with emotional openness when required; very persuasive on behalf of Alma's settings. Alma Mahler – Sarah Connolly – Marin Alsop: Girl Power! But what a real shame this concert wasn’t recorded; it was perfectly compact for an LSO Live disc and would have graced BBC Radio 3’s airwaves with distinction.