Mikko Franck conducts Mahler – 28 February

Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mikko Franck

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 28 February, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Mikko Franck is a conductor apart. Short, though not slight of stature, and substituting a chair for himself on the podium – deployed for between-movement breaks and as reinforcement in his more expressive moments – he creates an involvement with the music which certainly made his Mahler Five one to remember.

At 80 minutes, this was among the most expansive one is ever likely to hear, but there was almost no sense of sluggishness or aimlessness about the performance. Franck employs breadth as a means of shaping and dovetailing phrases in real-time; and his feeling for articulation is equalled by his care in balancing chords and highlighting instrumental detail from a three-dimensional perspective.

Certainly the opening movement was only a funeral march ’en passant’. More a fantasy on the idea of one, with Franck creating hypnotic concentration on the march-theme’s third appearance and in the build-up to the final climax, though the deadpan closing bars were a trifle underplayed. The stormy second movement was less successful, but its variational format needs tight control if the plethora of related ideas is to remain aurally coherent. What resulted was no more than the sum of its impressive parts, though Franck gave the chorale theme the emphasis it requires, ensuring that the collapse into nothingness was made the goal of the movement – as it is of the work at this point.

Some hanging-fire in the intricate fugal writing of the first section of the ’Scherzo’ aside, Franck had the measure of the movement’s robust comedy, with the trio taking on a wonderfully open, uninhibited feel (superbly defined and characterful pizzicatos here) and the tumultuous coda despatched with abandon. At 12 minutes, the ’Adagietto’ was more than an introduction to the ’Finale’, but not the full-blown psychodrama it can all too easily become. Save for a too-protracted return to the main theme, Franck did not confuse sentiment with sentimentality, his underlying sense of pulse ensuring an unbroken continuity going into the last movement. Mahler’s redefining of the Baroque in his music, this moved steadily but coherently to its rendezvous with the chorale theme – thrillingly affirmative at the end of almost a century of tragedy-to-triumph symphonic groundplans.

Kindertotenlieder made for a logical and subdued first half. Alice Coote has the depth of timbre needed to deliver these songs with the required plangency, though a feeling for the finer subtleties of shading between them eludes her so far. Franck pointed up their differences in character to telling effect, so that the overall follow-through of the cycle emerged more clearly. A Mahlerian of potential stature, his demonstrable rapport with the LSO should ensure his return in future seasons.

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