Kensington Symphony Orchestra/Russell Keable – Mahler 7

Symphony No.7

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Russell Keable

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 21 May, 2013
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Russell KeableMahler’s Seventh should have an at-your-own-risk warning – it’s notoriously difficult to pull off, with the result that it’s still the Cinderella of his symphonies. When it does get programmed, it’s often in splendid 75- to 90-minute isolation, which highlights its oddness. It’s more effective in company with one of the Second Viennese crowd, if only to play up its modernity, rather than, say, a classical concerto or, in a weird combination once from the LSO, ballet music by Rameau.

The Seventh also gives conductors carte blanche to bring their particular agendas, with hugely variable outcomes. The composer’s problems with two previously mapped-out movements (the ‘Nachtmusiken’) in search of a symphony have been much picked over, and Mahler’s eventual five-movement arch-form symmetry hampers his free-fall cavalcade of ideas, the inspiration of which, dare one say it, is not always at its white-hottest, with Mahler falling back on familiar tropes to carry him through.

It’s a tall order for a conductor – he or she needs a quick-fire grasp of the difference between Mahlerian implication and statement, of distancing irony versus mask-free honesty as well, as an informed understanding of musical references that would have clicked with contemporary Viennese audiences. So it was a particularly ambitious choice for the non-professional Kensington Symphony Orchestra and its chief, Russell Keable.

Overall, he had a keen ear for its avant-garde and subjective stream of consciousness, especially in the outer movements. The orchestra rather pounced on the first, but the baleful tenor horn and the dislocating rhythm of the opening quickly settled, and by the time we got to the finale, the playing was much more confident and free, with the allusions to Offenbach and Wagner properly acerbic. Keable moved in for the climactic kill with a sure hand, but, as for what was being despatched, the message – ‘am-I-bovvered’ for some, ‘greatness at work’ for others – was triumphantly ambiguous.

The middle movements – the episodic suite within a symphony – didn’t do much in the way of establishing shadows to be blown away by the finale, and the schattenhaft scherzo needed to be more anorexic. The playing, though, was full of fine solos – from horn, double bass and leader Alan Tuckwood, who gave a deliciously Mantovani/Soldier’s Tale spin to his ‘Nachtmusik II’ solo, like a not-entirely tolerated serenader working the tables in a restaurant. I forgot to notice if the cowbells in the first ‘Nachtmusik’ were beaten or shaken, but they tinkled fitfully, without really evoking the blue-remembered shtick so beloved of Mahler. Whether he intended it or not, in his generally spacious reading, Keable gave the close of the fourth movement a satisfying weight that served as a coda to the central movements, thus cutting them off from the finale.

The sound was bright and forward, and consistently loud. A large, strong-sounding string section underpinned by a mere four double-basses (placed in the middle of the platform in front of the woodwinds) inevitably sounded top-heavy, and when timpani were rumbling away at the bottom the pitch was murky. There’s also a difference and distance between Mahler’s solidity of sound of themes being laid in and the wind-in-sails volatility of them being developed, which the KSO didn’t quite appreciate. Yet there was a directness and passion to Keable and the KSO’s performance, offered with lucid detail, which had a keen awareness of the symphony’s scope. Whether or not it has a heart, how long have you got?

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