Tuesday, April 19, 2011 Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Douglas Cooksey
Lorin Maazel’s Mahler cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra is set to be the standout concert-going event of the year and goes from strength to strength. In the wrong hands Mahler 6 can prove an intractable listen and at one time would have emptied concert halls. I vividly recall a performance in the Usher Hall (Edinburgh) in the 1960s when the Scottish National Orchestra and Alexander Gibson were attended by a niggardly audience of just a few hundred, and there is the story of Walter Legge when asked by Jascha Horenstein to programme the work responded: “Anything, anything but Mahler’s Sixth". It was thought “box-office death”. Not so here!
On this occasion – and ‘occasion’ it certainly was – the conjunction of performers and music was near ideal, a perfect balance of ‘head and heart’. In the past Maazel has sometimes seemed slightly cerebral, the supreme technician but often standing away from the music. However, he seems to have a new-found warmth, passion and understanding. All his conducting wizardry remains but this was far more than a clinical traversal for Maazel captured that sense of awe at Mahler’s teeming invention, the work’s inner-life, which one felt when first hearing this extraordinary work.
There was a protracted pause at the outset. Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, the Philharmonia’s Leader, had become a victim of the erratic Jubilee Line (something we all fear), so Philippe Honoré took over the desk (at least for the first movement after which Visontay slid unobtrusively into position). When we got under way it was immediately clear that something special was happening. Maazel’s tempo was precisely as the score describes – Allegro energico ma non troppo – weighty but forward-moving with just enough air between the notes for brass detail to register. The ‘Alma’ theme was approached in an understated way and all the more effective for it. The exposition repeat was observed. With the central section came the cowbells, fairly stationary but effectively distant beasts in this case; we had entered a distinct and rarefied World – and it was this ability to vary tensions and move us onto a different plane which was so special.
Debate rages about the order of the two middle movements. Maazel opted for scherzo, then Andante. Whatever the rights and wrongs (during his lifetime, Mahler and colleagues placed the Andante first: see link below), judged in purely musical terms the sequence adopted here worked well because Maazel was able to characterise and maintain the narrative where many conductors lose themselves in the altväterisch (old-fashioned) episodes. The final, unnerving, fade-out was particularly effective. With the Andante we were back in the otherworldly atmosphere of the High Alps; this brought some fabulously restrained and subtle string-playing as well as a superbly voiced horn solo from Nigel Black beautifully embedded into the texture. The final string-dominated climax found the Philharmonia at its finest, playing of orgiastic depth and resonance.
The finale is ushered in by an extended introduction of extreme menace and unpredictability, the musical equivalent of walking on the surface of a bog, and one of the most outlandish passages in all Mahler. Many conductors make heavy weather of it; Maazel gave us a really detailed response to its shadowy, volatile world, the two harps (Manon Morris & Fiona Clifton-Walker) much in evidence, and underlined its menace with a gradual build-up of tension until the body of the movement burst forth with a ferocious energy and then never let up. Seldom does one hear orchestral playing of this commitment. Only the first of the two hammer blows disappointed (the second was much better). In this movement all sections of the Philharmonia were covered in glory – particular credit to the excellent bass trombone, Christian Jones, and the sensitive tuba, Peter Smith. Sadly, the first trumpet had something of an off night at several points earlier in the performance, but he may have been unwell as he left the stage for several moments in the lull before the performance began. For the rest, this was as shattering – and moving – a performance of this symphony as it has been my privilege to hear.