Westminster Philharmonic – Mahler 6 (3 April)

Symphony No.6

Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Jonathan Butcher

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 3 April, 2004
Venue: St. John’s Church, Waterloo, London

This concert by the enterprising Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra, which modestly describes itself as “one of London’s leading amateur orchestras,” was dedicated to the memory of Joseph Pilbery, who founded the orchestra in 1972. In the words of the Latin tag, “if you seek a memorial, look around you”. One rather wishes that the professional London orchestras showed a similar degree of imagination when it comes to programme-planning – the Westminster Phil’s next concert, on 3 July, comprises Rawsthorne’s Street Corner Overture, Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes, Sibelius’s En saga and Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony.

An amateur orchestra playing Mahler 6? It’s a taxing piece for most professional orchestras. For the most part it worked remarkably well. Had anyone suggested when the Mahler revival took off back in the 60s that forty years later an orchestra of the WPO’s status would be able to play what is perhaps Mahler’s most demanding symphony, there would probably have been general disbelief. The question for a reviewer is on what level to merit such a performance.

Certainly, anyone hearing this music for the first time would have got a very fair impression of it. While there are things which Jonathan Butcher may not ask for or get, notably greater care over dynamics, his basic conception of the piece was sound – tempos were well judged and the structure was eminently clear. His beat was precise and easily followed.

Perhaps inevitably, the different orchestral sections acquitted themselves with different degrees of distinction. Also, there were imbalances. For example, despite a cello section of 12, there were only 5 violas and 6 double basses, which might have lacked in numbers but made up for it in quality. Overall, the string sound was remarkably ample. There were, however, some significant variations in the wind and brass playing: flutes, bass clarinet, bassoons, horns and trombones all performing with distinction.

Butcher hit exactly the right tempo for the first movement, swift but not so swift as to preclude heft and bite from the lower strings. The repeat was taken, the Alma theme sensitively handled. Maybe this was the only performance one is likely to hear where the cowbells emerged from the far distance behind the high altar. The Scherzo, rightly played second, was once again on the swift side, the frequent tempo changes posing some problems for the orchestra. Outstanding was the Andante moderato, which greatly benefited from some remarkably secure horn-playing from Adrian Wheeler and intense string playing at the climax; the final bars found the first flute and bassoon playing with real artistry.

The massive finale is especially demanding. Its stratospheric opening brought some atmospheric playing from the strings, and was again notable for excellent contributions from first and second horns and the small but perfectly formed viola section. For the most part Butcher drove the movement forward and, not afraid to temp fate, opted for all three hammer blows – here a gigantic clapper rather than mallet and wood-block – and only allowed tension to dissipate slightly in the Straussian lead-up to the final climax. Heard in the relative confines of St John’s, this movement in particular was Mahler up close and personal.

A tremendous achievement and a fitting memorial to Joseph Pilbery. Orchestras such as the Westminster Philharmonic are the bedrock of musical activity in the capital and are devoutly to be encouraged. Its July concert is keenly anticipated. For anyone not familiar with St John’s, it’s the large Georgian church opposite the main entrance to Waterloo Station, and very close to IMAX.

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