Piano Concerto No.17 in G, K453
Symphony No.6 in A minor
Angela Hewitt (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 9 March, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
In Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, Mark Elder got so many things right – the orchestral layout of antiphonal violins, cellos left-centre, and double basses behind them; the deliberate tempo for the opening movement (given with exposition repeat); the placing of the slow movement second, and not just because Mahler himself did so when he conducted this work (although he seems to have dithered over the middle movements’ order when it came to publication); and the inclusion of the third, ‘superstitious’ hammer-blow in the finale, which Mahler couldn’t bring himself to play. But, this latter, fractionally late in its placement here, also seemed superfluous; Elder was very persuasive in suggesting that three hammer-blows are one too many. But, then, the first one here was too weak, albeit the woody, non-metallic timbre (which Mahler was very specific about) was spot-on … but as Alma Mahler noted, it is the first blow that does the real damage, and that wasn’t the case here.
Otherwise, there was much to admire in Elder’s unflappable conducting, his punctilious preparation of this epic score, and the LPO’s honed and disciplined response. Yet, although Elder may have got the first-movement tempo just right, a lack of weight didn’t always conjure the ‘hero’ fighting against the odds with resolve. One serious miscalculation was to have the cowbells placed in the middle of the hall on the left; for anyone sitting near this supposedly distant effect, including this writer, the balance was lopsided and anything than magical. Indeed, one wanted to shout “shut up” at those providing the irritating tintinnabulation. Why not simply place these ‘instruments’ backstage to give an across-the-board balance?
That this was an intensely musical performance there was no doubt, and the radiant slow movement was most beautifully played and emotionally expanded. Maybe though, overall, Elder was too sound- and balance-conscious, for what emerged during the almost 90-minute span of this performance was something lacking in narrative and implication. A real symphony, certainly, Mahler’s most classical and also the most subjective, but not so personal, here. The composer was quoted in the programme as saying: “What is best in music is not to be found in the notes”. On this occasion, Mark Elder took the opposite view.
How to judge the opening concerto? A small orchestral group (the strings playing without vibrato) and a Steinway made an incongruous coupling; yet Angela Hewitt’s neat, tidy and discreet playing lacked for wit, characterisation and, sometimes, tipped the balance the other way. Her contrapuntal clarity reminded of her Bach-playing; one could call it tasteful, ‘nice’ or just plain boring – depending on your point of view. Elder had a strange layout – the strings, from four double basses on the left, were completed by the second violins (separated from the firsts) at about 135 degrees, allowing the woodwinds to complete the semi-circle. Elder harried the first two movements with stylised correctness, but found truculence in the finale. The winds were especially vivid and stole the show.