Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano)
Tiffin Boys’ Choir
Ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 12 December, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
It was Cruel Fate indeed that found Colin Davis conducting Berlioz (Barbican) and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky Mahler on the same evening. The Russian ‘won’ given he is (unfortunately) a rare visitor to London nowadays (although he was a late replacement for Daniele Gatti at the Proms this year and is back in the Royal Festival Hall in a couple of months’ time with the Royal Philharmonic). And, maybe because of the huge repertoire that Rozhdestvensky conducts, Mahler seems not to feature too heavily in his schedule.
With the podium turned, in trademark fashion, 180 degrees – the floor of the platform being sufficient for Rozhdestvensky to stand on – the conductor’s equally-characteristic long baton flicked into life the opening summons from the horns (a section notably secure throughout the performance whether en masse or in solos) and immediately suggested a reading on the largest scale. This is what we got. The vast first movement, here 37 minutes, moved with implacable tread – as if Winter was thawing to Spring – and was full of incident while being no easy ride. Anguish and joy rode the journey hand-in hand, Mark Templeton was an eloquent trombonist, and if the seismic flare-ups, and the coda, were a little dogged, everything belonged.
After a suitably long pause to denote that this first movement is also the symphony’s ‘Part One’, the succeeding five movements included a carefree minuet that exhibited Rozhdestvensky’s ability to stretch a phrase without it seeming an indulgence, the dance ending in twilight and succeeded by a sprites-at-play scherzo in which the posthorn solo (distant but not ‘high’ enough and seemingly played on a flugelhorn, if not quite sounding like one) was sensitively brought off, with lyrical flow and warmth, by Brian Thompson. Excellent stage-management found Petra Lang – currently playing Kundry in Royal Opera’s “Parsifal” – seated in the Choir throughout the performance. The extra distance for her voice to travel was very well judged – the space added something extra; a lot of ‘sch’ on “Mensch”, Lang focussed on Nietzsche’s words and not her brief appearance and then joined in with the eagerly-bright ladies and boys for the ‘morning bells’.
The finale, with too long a gap before it stole in, was solemnly slow, rapt, serene and spoke of divine contemplation as well as being voluble. Celia Chambers (in her last concert before retiring) offered an exquisite flute solo, the trumpets and trombones phrased and blended with poised pianissimo and, after 25 minutes, the final ascension avoided bombast.
Overall, this was an exhausting if exhilarating performance, one that demanded total listening – whether in attention to detail or in dynamic variance (especially from the grouped-together violins, which received much attention from Rozhdestvensky’s semaphore-signalling left hand). Whether looking genial or stern, or shimmying his intentions, his baton carving large designs in the air, Rozhdestvensky had the London Philharmonic hanging on his every gesture – and also putting responsibility on the musicians, which the members of the LPO (founded on 10 double basses, ideal for this new-old Hall) did with concentration and conviction.
Of the most recent live performances of Mahler 3 in London that your reviewer has attended (in the order of Bělohlávek, Abbado and Gergiev), this was the most engrossing and illuminating – but Cruel Fate still had the last laugh, for Rozhdestvensky’s memorable traversal was the only one that wasn’t recorded!