London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Gill Redfern
Reviewed: 9 May, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
With the London Symphony Orchestra back on home turf after its recent marathon tour with Daniel Harding of the Far East (fourteen concerts in eight cities across only a little more than two weeks), the Barbican Hall was pretty much full to capacity to hear Harding put the orchestra through its paces in the last of four London concerts that have formed “A Portrait” of the conductor.
Mahler’s Fifth Symphony 5 is a weighty and reasonably lengthy piece, and consequently requires a relatively brief work as its programme partner; on this occasion, Wolfgang Rihm’s 1995 work In-Schrift (Inscription) did the honours.
The only word to describe Rihm’s output is ‘prolific’ (the Universal Edition website-list of his works spans seven pages!), though In-Schrift is perhaps unique amongst his output in its scoring. Abandoning upper strings completely, there is a distinct bias in favour of lower-pitched instruments, with the ensemble including six trombones, tuba, cellos and double basses, as well as a battery of percussion.
Beginning with a section strongly reminiscent of the ‘Dies Irae’ from Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, right down to the flutter-tongued flutes, the shrill, manic opening theme quickly gives way to a much calmer second subject, led by the trombones and tuba, which recalled Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Intonation in close, discordant harmonies was secure, particularly from the strings, and it was this that sustained interest through a central section that lacked complete musical conviction. Even in the relatively dry acoustic of the Barbican Hall, there were moments where the clarity of the small number of ‘melody’ instruments and the harp were lost, despite their prominent positions at the front of the stage. I was also somewhat perplexed by the physical isolation of the trumpets (set far back from the rest of the players).
The five percussionists, punctuating the brass theme, then supporting with unison tubular bells, seemed initially somewhat under-utilised. However, after the dialogue of the opening sections, they were abruptly left to pound in rhythmic isolation on side drums and a range of other instruments before the opening theme returned and the work died swiftly away on solo harp. Harding led the ensemble with clear precision and the players coped well with the demands made of this slightly disjointed work.
Then the larger forces required for Mahler’s substantial Fifth Symphony assembled. Having performed the work five times on the recent tour, the players could perhaps have been forgiven for displaying a certain lack of freshness, but Maurice Murphy’s trumpet solo immediately dispelled that thought, note-perfect and sending shivers down my spine.
The first and second violins balanced each other on opposite sides of the front of the platform, and the double basses were placed behind the first violins: this arrangement (similar to that which Mahler himself used when conducting) worked particularly well in the first movement, where dramatic brass-led declamations vied with sweet-toned, melancholic strings and woodwinds, and the horns responded with vigour to Mahler’s demanding writing.
The second movement set off at a passionate but tightly controlled pace, with the initial fervour segueing seamlessly into the cellos’ soliloquy. The orchestra brought an overarching sense of continuity to this most fractured of the five movements, moving between the slightly tipsy, cabaret-style second subject and the more highly-strung theme from the first movement with consummate ease.
The scherzo’s practically flawless horn obbligato from David Pyatt, with its impressive range of timbres and dynamics, was the icing on the cake in a movement that was almost ‘textbook’ in its accuracy, and the Adagietto for strings and harp (made famous by the film “Death in Venice”) was both a welcome respite from the tossing and turning of the scherzo, and a fitting prelude to the substantial Rondo-Finale.
Launching into the final movement, the players deftly executed the initial weaving contrapuntal lines and myriad false climaxes that had, by this point in Mahler’s life, become so characteristic of his orchestral writing. Like the Eighth Symphony (“Symphony of a Thousand”), the twisting journey that the listener follows is in slight danger of being too long but, with the orchestra showing no signs of flagging, and Harding’s youthful energy still very much in evidence, the work tumbled to a triumphant conclusion.