London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall

Rossini Overture – William Tell
Mozart Piano Concerto in D minor K466
Shostakovich Symphony 15
27 January 2001

Mahler Symphony No.3
4 February 2001

Till Fellner (piano), Kent Nagano conducting
27 January 2001

Anna Larsson (contralto)
Choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral
Ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting
4 February 2001

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 4 February, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Still rare on the concert platform, London is graced thrice this season with performances of Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony – Sanderling and the Philharmonia at the opening of the RFH season and Slatkin is hot on Nagano’s tail on 24 February with the BBCSO in the Barbican. So how did Nagano fare?

First plus mark was the programming. Given its own difficulties in being programmed in any concert worth its salt, Rossini’s Overture to his final opera, William Tell, is probably rarer than the Symphony, but because of the quotations Shostakovich lifts from it, there is a nice synergy placing them together in the same concert. Not that the programme notes made particular reference: admittedly there was mention of Rossini in the Shostakovich note, but an introduction pointing out the careful planning may have made the audience more interested in just the individual pieces of music. As it happened my enjoyment of the Overture was clouded by the fact I was late and – although I heard it complete – I had to make do with the TV relay outside the auditorium. Yet, even from this poor aural situation, it was clear that Nagano and his players were treating this music with respect rather than playing to the gallery as can so often happen with this ’war-horse’.

The young Austrian, tall and stiff-backed like a 6th-form prefect, Till Fellner joined the Orchestra for a cleansing of the romantic palette, with some troubled classicism in the form of one of Mozart’s few piano concertos written in a minor key (there is only one other). Poised and eloquent, I rather enjoyed the performance, with the light-footed orchestral accompaniment dove-tailing with Fellner’s limpid solo line, even though – visually – Kent Nagano’s long, slick black hair seemed indicative of a different style to Fellner with his short back and sides.

But the meat of the concert was in the Symphony, and given its pedigree with this particular work (two recordings – with Bernard Haitink and Mariss Jansons) the LPO relished the pungent clashes of style as well as the most intimate music-making – special mention to Robert Truman for his yearning cello solo in the slow movement.

In making up a programme to conjoin with this work, if you wanted to heighten the quotations Shostakovich uses you could include traditional bleeding chunks of Wagner, as within the musical fabric you will find the fate-motif from The Ring, the timpani funereal tread of Siegfried’s Death and more than a hint of Tristan und Isolde. That, however, may be gilding the lily. Tell’s struggle to free the Swiss cantons, and Mozart’s troubled brow were perfect bed-fellows for the mass of contradictions that Shostakovich surely was, and for what we think him to be (let alone his music). I have always liked the story that at the end of the work the ticking percussion are meant to represent the medical gadgets monitoring Shostakovich in hospital. While that is most likely apocryphal (or just plain fanciful), we can now, in hindsight, realise that Shostakovich was self-quoting his Fourth Symphony, which – in the face of Stalin’s criticism of his opera Lady Macbeth in Mtsensk – he had withdrawn before its première in 1936 and only allowed it to be performed in 1961. There is probably no better indication of how personal Shostakovich made his symphonies (although not without precedent: Rachmaninov quoted from his at-that-time assumed lost First Symphony in his final symphonic work, the Symphonic Dances), and no performance of a work by Shostakovich should leave an audience unmoved by his life and how it dictated his music. This performance did just that.

The following week, Esa-Pekka Salonen, introduced especially by the London Philharmonic’s Artistic Director, Serge Dorny, came on to the Royal Festival Hall stage to lead the Orchestra through one of the epics of the orchestral repertoire: Mahler’s longest symphony (and therefore one of the longest symphonies ever written), his Third. Salonen has been particularly associated with this work, ever since in 1983 he took over a Philharmonia concert from an indisposed Michael Tilson Thomas, not knowing the score, and only having a week to learn it. In 1993 he celebrated the tenth anniversary of that occasion with a (scheduled) performance with the Philharmonia and he will return to them in April for Mahler’s First. But here he replaced Bernard Haitink in what was another debut – his first concert with the London Philharmonic.

There was no doubt that there was buzz in the foyers, amongst the orchestra and in the auditorium, and – simply – that buzz was well deserved. I have to admit that the best performance I have ever heard of Mahler’s Third was by Haitink at the 1999 Proms, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which I could easily choose (if such a choice was worth anything) as the greatest musical performance I have ever attended. My expectations where already high, so when I heard that Haitink had cancelled I was shell-shocked but also equally excited about hearing Salonen’s performance again. In one of the great replacement-scenarios of recent times, Salonen conducted a performance very different from the way Haitink would have done it but which was imbued with the same quality I have come to expect from him: honesty.

Too many times audiences are presented with conductors who like to force their own personality onto a piece of music, to make it theirs by obscuring the voice of the composer. Haitink and Salonen (and a perilously small number of other conductors) certainly shape and mould the music, but only at the behest of the composer, and never for their own ends. The monumental first movement veered from primeval grumbling to bacchanalian expressions of joy before ending in a blazing coda that was so overpowering that it was tangible almost as much as it was audible. Then Salonen sits for Mahler’s suggested five minutes before conducting the rest of the symphony (none of your Levine-esque ’Let’s have an interval here’ to totally undo all Mahler has achieved up to that point).

Mahler told Sibelius in 1907 that he thought symphonies should encompass the whole world, and the Third Symphony is probably his most eloquent musical achievement in that respect. The dainty second movement is the greatest possible contrast to the mighty first, while the third movement, a scherzo, includes a massive part for off-stage posthorn. Although he was probably totally unaware of it, being backstage, Brian Thompson’s Herculean solo was almost derailed, for the audience (and, probably the Radio 3 recording broadcast the following Wednesday) by a persistent, unmuffled cougher. Yet, I suppose, the great un-handkerchiefed are just as much a part of ’the world’ as are more thoughtful members of the audience. One of the boys in the choir also had a problem with a potential tickling cough, and it was a pure Mahlerian situation made visible to see the clandestine attempts to supply him with a handkerchief and, somehow by osmosis or telepathy, will him not to spoil the performance by a distracting outburst. In the final movement a mobile-phone went off behind me, muffled for three or four rings (so I thought it was somewhere in the terrace) but then frighteningly loud for less than a full ring when the owner fished it out of a bag to switch it off. Grit your teeth!

Swedish contralto, Anna Larsson, who had sung in the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance with Abbado in this hall in October 1999 (and has recorded it with Salonen and his Los Angeles Philharmonic for Sony), came on (to some wholly inappropriate applause) at the end of the Scherzo to warn mankind, urgently and breathlessly. Then the patient Ladies’ chorus and boys choristers were able to imitate angels and bells in the brief fifth movement that is intricately connected melodically with the closing movement of the Fourth Symphony, which Mahler originally intended to end the Third. However, he opted to go with just six movements, the last a 20-minute orchestral hymn for which Salonen jettisoned his baton and moulded the music with his bare fingers, the orchestra responding to every nuance. This rapt, yet joyous paean grows in strength to a final peroration which is probably Mahler’s most successful, an effect heightened visually by Salonen’s request that four timpani are used at the end, not two (each timpanist tuning two timpani each to the same two pitches and using a stick in each hand) as, in unison, they underpin the sonorous orchestral line in the bars up to the final tutti chord.

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