LSO/Boulez Mahler 5 – 9 October

Music for strings, percussion and celesta
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor

London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 9 October, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This was one of those all-too-rare occasions – a thoroughly memorable concert, with impeccable musicianship of integrity and commitment on display, and where the music was the first priority.

Bartók’s was given with a full string section very clearly divided so that the all-important antiphonal writing could make its full impact. The mood of the first movement was quite eerie, with every string entry carefully balanced, and no crescendo until one was marked. The climax was powerful, and the string portamentos strongly played – too often these are rendered with apology – and the shimmering entry of the celesta was unnerving. The bite and verve of the second movement dispelled the gloom, and the myriad details of the scoring were ideally clear. Boulez and the players made us aware of the inventive percussion writing, whilst harp and piano provided textural sparkle. There was an almost dance-like quality to the rhythms with not a hint of heaviness, while the more lyrical moments stood out most effectively.

The third movement is one of Bartók’s most remarkable nocturnal creations, with the xylophone and timpani at the start suggesting two isolated and not-especially-friendly night-creatures. String lines were tense and nervous, and the whole was an effective evocation of things that go bump in the night. John McCabe, quoted in the programme notes, suggested that this movement projects a detachment from human anxieties. I would argue quite the opposite – this is surely music that is fearful in every sense of the word and Boulez conveyed this unerringly. The ’Finale’ sees a return of daylight with driving balletic rhythms and Hungarian folk-like melodies. This performance had an appropriately earthy quality, while the brief return to the mood of the opening movement was poignant and affecting. An outstanding performance.

This Mahler 5 will live long in the memory, as does one given by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein at the Proms in 1988. Boulez led a performance which moved from darkness to light – and not without a struggle. The opening funeral much was gloomy, heavy and world-weary with weighty bass drum and lower strings pulling the music downwards, as it were. As ever with Boulez there was textural revelation, not for its own sake but to ensure the clarity of the symphonic argument for, in the final analysis, this performance emphasised Mahler’s taut structures and his astonishing way of developing thematic material.

The wild second movement was almost unbearably tense, with snapping brass and an extraordinary sense of vehemence and panic. Although the comparison may not find favour with Boulez, there was an almost Furtwängler-like sense of building, retaining and then releasing tension. The ’Scherzo’ was not all lightness and jocularity – dark shadows loomed but were finally dispelled. The music was propelled along with an almost manic urgency but D major ultimately and defiantly asserted itself.

The famous ’Adagietto’ was not an occasion for wallowing or sentimentality; it was actually rather restless but provided a logical link from what had gone before to the more positive mood of the ’Finale’. Good spirits finally bubbled to the surface and with the re-emergence of the chorale theme, now confidently in the major on full-toned, yet not harsh, brass, Mahler’s struggle drew to a triumphant conclusion.

It was wonderful to experience a great conductor and great orchestra working together to realise great music. This was a remarkable performance and one I do not expect to be bettered in the foreseeable future.

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