Philharmonia Orchestra/Zander – The World of Mahler 1 (25 January)

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Symphony No.1

Christopher Maltman (baritone)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Benjamin Zander

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 25 January, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This programme was a dry run for the next CD in Benjamin Zander’s Telarc Mahler series with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Mahler’s First Symphony was celebrated.

The symphony shares material with Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, while Blumine (flowering) was originally the symphony’s second movement. Mahler discarded it as too sentimental. These pieces have a ’family’ connection, then.

They clearly bear the stamp of genius – in melody, in finesse of orchestration, in sensitivity to instrumental timbre. Waywardness is evident, too. Mahler went his own way, in lofty disregard of form and in eclecticism. Mostly he was brilliant and adventurous, but just sometimes he was downright self-indulgent.

In a pre-concert talk, Zander, no stranger to hyperbole, referred to Mahler 1 as the “greatest first symphony ever written.” (I can resign myself to never hearing Zander conduct the first symphonies of Brahms, Sibelius or Walton.)

He referred rather too excitedly and euphorically to the symphony’s three climaxes. The Philharmonia responded as instructed, producing an extraordinary volume of highly competent noise. This included vigorously intense massed violin playing, confident brass (one untidy entry excepted) and the artistry of a musician I have been admiring over many concerts now – the timpanist, Andrew Smith.

Acclaim for Mahler’s splendid, raucous, near-vulgar final climax approached the orchestra’s own decibels.

Zander’s talk had fittingly distinguished between those who listen attentively (“active”) and those who merely hear the music (“passive”). Tonight, “passive” listeners were out in force. They rushed to become manic applauders, jumping up to be counted the moment the work had finished. (The orchestra, interestingly, was impassive.)

What did the concert hold for “active” listeners? Zander had suggested we listen out for unusual cuckoo calls – a musical fourth instead of the bird’s usual third.

I had several more serious concerns. Between climaxes, Zander was boring. The idiosyncratic shape of the movements slid through his fingers – due to absence of phrasing, failure to prepare adequately for changes in style and mood, vulgar and unsubtle use of the wind’s potential to be grating (played though with great panache) – and above all, seemingly deliberate inattention to the Philharmonia’s magnificent lower strings, jettisoning opportunities for grounding the music and promoting a steady forward momentum.

Christopher Maltman looked and sounded as though his love misadventure was long past. In a small but not unpleasing voice, aching youthful emotion was recollected in rather too much tranquillity.

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