Philharmonia Concert – 14th June

Suite (selections)
Clarinet Concerto in A, K622
Symphony No.4

Michael Collins (basset-clarinet)
Emma Kirkby (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 14 June, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Taking two movements each from Bach’s orchestral suites 2 and 3 (B minor and D), Mahler added post-Bachian clarinets and piano. Piano? Yes, not what I was expecting either. Suite for organ, harpsichord and orchestra is Mahler’s title, duly noted and discussed in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s programme; Salonen’s recent recording of it (Sony) is so-described and executed; Chailly performed it thus with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in London last year.

Norrington dropped both the organ’s sustaining role and the harpsichord (continuo) for the (very effective) piano, which presumably used the harpsichord’s part. Norrington also opted for a solo violin (rather than Mahler’s tutti) to duet with Ken Smith’s flute in the first of the two chosen movements – the B minor’s overture – using the Philharmonia’s full strings but refusing them the use of vibrato, which Mahler himself surely wouldn’t have done.

Fine performance though, bright and shiny, scholarly and joyous, the wisdom of using antiphonal violins always aurally apparent; Norrington’s eight double basses, lined across the back of the platform, added weight without subsidence. Norrington’s affection for Suite 3’s pair of gavottes made them positively Handelian!

A much reduced string section (three basses) authenticated the Mozart, further achieved by Michael Collins using a basset-clarinet, believed to be what Mozart intended. Allowing that the outer movements were perhaps too nifty, Collins’s virtuosity and Norrington’s phrasal ease (helped by the merest staccato on the shortest notes) ensured – more or less – that articulation and shape didn’t suffer unduly. Intimate and autumnal, this subtly inflected reading came into its own in the flowing slow movement with a wistful, magically-quiet return of the opening idea, Collins supplying ornamentation to the printed line and relishing the basset’s low notes in the finale.

Mahler does without trombones in No.4, an indication of his concern for transparent orchestration in this nostalgic, evocative, even neo-classical symphony.

It’s not often these days that Mahler 4 is dispatched in 48 minutes – 55 might be a reasonable average; an hour-plus has been achieved. Bruno Walter and Leopold Ludwig, say, in their recordings are close to Norrington’s 48 (how Bachian!) … but is it authentic? Willem Megelberg, a close friend of Mahler, in his 1939 Concertgebouw recording (an essential document for anyone commenting on the Fourth) took nearly 58 (17.5, 8.5, 21.5, 10); Norrington’s movement timings (15, 8, 17, 8) and his one-tempo, somewhat straitjacketed conducting is in total contrast to Mengelberg’s interventionist approach. Nor did Norrington introduce portamento outside of that notated.

In one sense, this was a squeaky-clean rendition allowing Mahler’s text the opportunity to speak for itself. Yet, allowing that Norrington might have been in the wrong time-zone and that the composer himself would have been more sectional, Norrington’s view had an instinctive ’period’ feel – his unsaturated and integrated account proved a refreshing countenance to the ’obvious’ indulgence and powerhouse manner of contemporary Mahler performance.

Norrington certainly convinced that everything in the first movement can be related, driving the music on – albeit too relentlessly at times despite the Philharmonia’s nimble and sensitive execution – to implied catastrophe, as what might be a child’s imagination succumbs to nightmare, a diabolical state retained with the tone-higher violin solo in the succeeding ’devilish’ scherzo, which here sounded rushed.

Once again antiphonal violins offered revealing listening – from the outset with the seconds’ ’tick-tock’ figuration (no pun intended) to the harp’s clock-ticking at the lullaby-close (a cross-reference I’d not made before) in which Emma Kirkby’s ’pure’ voice was a timbre-asset; she brought-off a very effective glissando.

Norrington’s allusion to time-passing was thought-provoking, as was his with-without use of vibrato – without such decoration, violas and cellos at the start of the ’adagio’ had a viol-like quality, their sotto voce expression over a march-like bass-tread initiating a nocturnal forest walk. Norrington’s demonstrative conducting and facial descriptions got the varied moods across – Christopher Cowie’s lachrymose oboe solos in (iii) had a plangency which wouldn’t have been out of place in Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

Such reference, and Norrington’s individual response, ensured this was a Mahler 4 to extend one’s appreciation of it – on the never-ending learning-curve that is engaged, internally-grounded listening to music.

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