Thursday, April 28, 2011 Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Douglas Cooksey
This fourth instalment of Lorin Maazel’s Mahler cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra was good in parts but ultimately less satisfying than the previous concerts. However if quality of playing alone were the sole measure of success, the day would have undoubtedly been won. The evening got off less than propitiously with the four original “Rückert-Lieder” plus ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’, written slightly later as a gift for Alma. Of all Mahler’s songs these seem better suited to the female voice, to wit Kathleen Ferrier and especially Janet Baker. When sung by a baritone, even one as fine as Simon Keenlyside, they can sound ungainly, the wide leaps exposing breaks in register and a lack of true legato. In ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ (which Mahler did not orchestrate himself), Keenlyside failed to project adequately. Things improved in the mischievous ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’ (Do not look for me in my song) with its gossamer accompaniment. There was some fine woodwind- and brass-playing in ‘Um Mitternacht’ (At Midnight) but only in the luminous final paragraph of ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (I am lost to the World) did one sense true repose.
The gemütlich Fourth was for a long time perhaps the only symphony by which many people of a previous generation knew Mahler’s music. Under Maazel, it received a thoroughly impressive performance, superbly played for the most part (one patch of uncharacteristically insecure ensemble at the close of the first movement aside) and avoiding the worst pitfalls which frequently beset other readings. The first movement in particular is littered with instructions which – taken too literally – can lead the unwary conductor astray into thickets from which he or she never returns; for instance injunctions like Wild or etwas fliessender are often treated as an invitation to double the speed when they are as much to do with character. Maazel is savvy enough to negotiate these danger-points with a confidence which many conductors would envy, but for all the polish, it frequently felt as though there were a dimension missing. In a word: ‘wonder’.
When the work received its premiere, in Munich in 1901, the critics were almost in unanimous in their condemnation, its faux naïf character seeming to them as though the composer were cocking a snook at the Austro-German symphonic tradition. However, there is a difference between ‘childish’ and ‘childlike’. Under Maazel, for all the restrained beauty of the playing – balances throughout were exemplary –, one had little sense of innocence. Consequently moments such as the first movement’s nightmarish climax or the soaring string theme towards the second-movement Ländler’s close seemed carefully observed rather than genuinely tugging at the heartstrings. Best of all was the expansive account of the slow movement in which Maazel’s risk-taking by slowing the music right down at significant moments and his control of detail paid rich dividends. Here too there was some particularly impressive wind playing, notably Christopher Cowie’s lamenting oboe and Emer McDounough’s distinctive flute. In the finale, Sarah Fox, arriving to the stage at this point and breaking the symphony's flow, gave an adequate if less than involving account of the child’s vision of heaven.