Kensington SO Mahler 5

That Short Thing [World premiere]
Symphony No.5

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Russell Keable

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 18 March, 2006
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Cleverly the Kensington Symphony Orchestra chose to focus on just one work, Mahler’s ubiquitous Fifth Symphony, which had been intensively rehearsed while remaining fresh; there was nothing contemptuous here: the musicians of the KSO – the most professional-sounding of the amateur bands that inhabit the capital (and no doubt beyond it) – responded magnificently to Russell Keable’s musical perceptions.

Edward Longstaff’s premiere was no distraction from the main offering. Indeed That Short Thing proved pleasurably diverting, so too his engaging written note that concerned “Mahler and me” (Mahler and I, surely!) and John Cage’s 4’33”. Oh, and the news that his commission is “closely based on Schoenbergian, and hence post-Mahlerian, serial techniques”. Fair enough! One thing that Longstaff failed to mention in his digression is that Keable is also bespectacled – that’s one of the Mahler/Longstaff connections, you understand – another being that both had/have wives who are anagrams. (Mrs Mahler equals ‘lama’.)

Thus That Short Thing is a celebratory non-celebratory opus (Longstaff suggests that he is a trifle deaf in the ear he uses when Keable is in commissioning mode). It certainly has an ‘Arnold connection’ – not the rigorous methods described as Schoenbergian, but the bright and breezy traits of Sir Malcolm. That Short Thing conjures greyer tones, too, which recall Alan Rawsthorne and, as he did, northern mill towns. Add in, too, some exoticism that suggested Nielsen’s music for “Aladdin”.

These are but references (rather than influences) and, in brief, and in seriousness, That Short Thing lasts 5 minutes but is no 5-minute-wonder; it is a gem full of striking ideas. Whether it is what it seems, or not – we only have the composer’s word! – I took That Short Thing as a delicious piece of light music, brilliantly inventive, colourfully and lucidly scored, witty and engaging, very English in most respects save for some delightfully syncopated chinoiserie, and which demands an immediate revival by the KSO and being taken up by other orchestras as a distinctive and enjoyable concert opener.

When he had emerged from the audience to take his bow, Longstaff then took his place in the KSO’s cellos, part of a big string section of 62 players deployed for Mahler 5. If there was only a quintet of double bassists, there was no foundational shortfall in this acoustic, and the violins sat antiphonally, as the music demands.

Mahler throws copious challenges at any orchestra, not least the opening trumpet solo, tragic and nocturnal. One slightly slippery moment aside, Steve Willcox came through the test admirably, and Keable caught the funereal tread of this movement ideally, with purpose and without dragging, the stormy section integrated without diminishing its agitation; later the woodwinds found an appropriate ‘military band’ tone. The ‘vehement’ second movement needed to follow with less of a break, although Keable did find continuity by keeping his baton poised, and was attacked with considerable force by the KSO; a moment of real frisson occurred when the cellos played their soliloquy, and Keable steered this complex movement through with careful balance of episode and structure.

The orchestra could have usefully re-tuned while Keable was buffing his glasses, and there were some miscalculations in the Ländler-related middle movement; no lack of lilt but Keable harried certain features and placed an avoidable burden on the string players: ensemble was a little precarious at times. But there were good things, too – especially Jon Boswell’s heroic horn solos (rightly eschewing Mahler’s ‘suggestion’, he played seated rather that standing or from the front of the platform), and the macabre pizzicatos and the woodwinds’ sardonic comments were pointedly revealed.

The remaining two movements, which form the symphony’s Part III, were wonderfully done. The “Death in Venice” Adagietto, here shorn of its film and ‘in memoriam’ connotations, was a flowing, expressively curved and voluptuous billet-doux to Alma, which was deeply convincing and, at just under 8 minutes, was in line with Mahler’s colleagues Mengelberg and Walter. The finale was joyful, whether in its baroque-isms, dynamic contrasts, the deft articulation of the musicians or the giocoso elements that Keable so engagingly bubbled from underground. The triumphant closing bars were unforced, thunder not having been stolen earlier, in the second movement, when light emerges from the gloom. Such observations are typical of the questioning and disclosing Keable whose long-term and incident-packed account of this Mahler symphony, with an up-for-it KSO, reminded of Kubelik’s way with this music. The concert was filmed, the cameras never intrusive; good to know that these absorbing performances are more than just a fond memory.

The Kensington Symphony Orchestra’s 50th-anniversary season continues on 15 May, in St John’s, with an enticing programme that concludes with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and includes a David Matthews premiere, Colin Matthews’s Fourth Sonata for Orchestra and William Alwyn’s Symphony No.5.

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