Festive Overture, Op.96
Proms Festival Orchestra
Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers
Reviewed: 8 September, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
A Mahler Symphony heard before an audience. At last. Social-distancing and Mahler are not obviously compatible – seven horns and five trumpets amongst the 87 players here for his Fifth – but a valiant attempt was made. Understatement of the century following: it has been a tough time for those linked with the performing arts these past eighteen months. Freelance musicians, who form the back-bone of many performances where orchestras need extra players beyond those on the permanent pay-roll, have had it extra tough: no income since no work, and furlough difficult if not impossible. This newly-formed orchestra – the Proms Festival Orchestra – consists of entirely freelance musicians recruited for this occasion. One could sense the jubilation of the players with this enterprise, and as a celebration of musicians it would be a very good thing if this were now an annual fixture.
Mahler’s Fifth Symphony’s darkness-to-light journey made for a decent choice: it is about life with death, and more besides, and is all the more relatable because of the pandemic and its effects. The Symphony’s technical demands were decently dispatched by the players. Chris Evans had the measure of the perilous opening trumpet fanfare , and throughout the work his playing was assured. As was the whole woodwind section: some terrific passage-work and solos. Elsewhere in the funeral-march first movement, bleakness pervaded. The moments of unity in the second movement struck awe: blazes of clear sound rallied the collective spirit. Harpist Tamara Young’s moment in the limelight – the Adagietto – breathed beautifully with the pulse of the movement. A rather comfortable Finale ensued, sadly: episodic, the big moments were ‘there’ but the journey to them unclear, and the music itself simply demanded more to be made of it.
The warm-up item of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture received a spirited outing. The distancing/placement of the players gave some weird echo effects for even this notorious Hall, as also happened in the Mahler.
It would be remiss not to mention that there were a few problems with ensemble – especially difficult with Mahler’s music as there are many lines and exposed passages for solos. But, ultimately, those reservations mattered not: these players have not played with each other as an orchestra – kudos to Mark Wigglesworth bringing all together – and performances can, and often are, about more than ‘just’ the music. As a concert that transcended the notes on the page so as to celebrate music-making, this was a triumph for all in the Royal Albert Hall.