Prom 35: Sakari Oramo, Leila Josefowicz & BBC Symphony Orchestra – Mahler & Berg

Alban Berg
Violin Concerto ‘To the Memory of an Angel’

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 7 in E-minor

Leila Josefowicz (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Alexander Hall

Reviewed: 10 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Intervening illnesses are always unfortunate. In this case Sir Andrew Davis, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Conductor Laureate, was prevented from conducting his old band, but happily their current boss, Sakari Oramo, was on hand to take over. However, the major work initially advertised, Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, needed to be substituted. Its original pairing with Berg’s Violin Concerto made good sense, since both works stretch the boundaries of form, substance, and tonality as far as it was possible to go at their respective times of composition.

Subtitles can have different functions. With the Berg this acts as a dedication – the reference being to the eighteen-year-old Manon Gropius, struck down by polio before her early death in 1935. Judging by several contemporary accounts, Manon was more of a spoiled teenage brat than an angel, but Berg’s own romantic entanglement with her mother and his guilt at a string of affairs played into elements of a transfiguration which make this work so eminently powerful and emotionally involving. Leila Josefowicz began her account with a mere whisper, her single thread of sound slowly floating above a cushion of dark velvety strings set against individual flecks of colour from the woodwind. This prelude yielded in the following Allegretto to manifest physical joy in her playing, the incisive attacks and strong bowing giving full expression to Manon’s youthful character. Though it is often argued that the first part of Berg’s only concerto represents an elegiac-nostalgic recall of what has been lost, I was struck by the energy and forcefulness Josefowicz found. Even her full-length black ball gown with its lace appliqué and sequins couldn’t sufficiently muffle the occasional moments of foot-stamping. Who knows, this might even have been an inadvertent and unintended underlining of teenage temper tantrums.

As the nightmare of the second part unfolded with its volcanic surges, there was again plenty of ferocity in Josefowicz’s furious double-stopping and pizzicatos, but she also found uncommon restraint and tenderness in both the cadenza and the subsequent echoes of Bach’s lament-like chorale “Es ist genug”. She was absolutely inside the music, the face – which had earlier reflected the joy of sheer physicality – now wreathed in anguish. Throughout Oramo was a sympathetic accompanist, his attention to the baleful trombones and the pithiness of the woodwind contributions, including a dolorous bassoon, being a particular highlight. Only Bach could suffice as an encore: in this instance it was the third movement Largo from his Sonata No. 3 in C-major.

The subtitle that is sometimes appended to Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, ‘Song of the Night’, is not the composer’s own choice. It is more of a nickname, given that two of the five movements carry the title ‘Nachtmusik’, and sandwiched between the two there is something very shadowy and spectral. All this taps into our individual associations of night-time: are these moments of repose in the arms of Morpheus, with gently hooting owls and mellifluous-sounding nightingales in the background, or the stuff of nightmares and things that go bump in the night? Perhaps Oramo felt he needed to banish all elements of darkness that had filled the first half of the evening. Or perhaps he was unconsciously reflecting Stephen Johnson’s programme note which argued that this is the closest Mahler came to writing a concerto for orchestra.

It is of course possible to treat this score as a display vehicle for orchestral virtuosity. Certainly, the woodwind and brass – unflagging until the very end – rose magnificently to the challenge, the strings less so. There was often too little heft and weight to their collective sound, especially when pitted against the full force of the other sections. Oramo delivered an account characterised by sharpness and clarity, the articulation of individual lines suggesting careful preparation. At well over eighty minutes, it was also considerably longer than more recent accounts, both live and recorded.

What troubled me until the festive panoply of the Rondo-Finale, was an absence of the all-important emotional undercurrents. Oramo always gives the impression of “looking after” his players; of being a gentlemanly and genial maestro. His repeated smiles in the earlier movements certainly suggested delight and enjoyment, and the strength of his view of the symphony came in those moments of delicacy and tenderness, even when, as in the second Nachtmusik, the detail of mandolin and guitar was buried behind the upper strings.

Nevertheless, I listened in vain for any suggestion in the opening movement of a funeral march, a recurrent feature of this composer’s symphonies. Here, Oramo kept things very much on the move, with little likelihood of this particular rowing-boat – said to be the inspiration for the rocking rhythms of the start – becoming tangled in the reeds. Nor any hint of the anxiety or nervous twitchiness which others have found in this score. As the movement reached its final section in B major, the harp glissando should have ushered in a moment of emotional release leading to a sense of headiness. Yet it was the head that ruled in this performance, not the heart.

An unwillingness to stretch all the sinews of the music was most apparent in the central Scherzo. Despite fine viola solos I missed an overall feeling of edginess in this movement, which is arguably the spookiest thing Mahler ever wrote. At one point the composer requires cellos and double-basses to play as loud as possible, with the strings rebounding with force against the wood. Here, it merely sounded tame.

The gentler orchestration of the second Nachtmusik suited Oramo better, the nocturnal beauties and subtleties of Mahlerian sonority emerging in playing of translucent splendour. In the Finale too, it was the moments of relaxation that impressed more than the gusto with which the brass, woodwind and percussion delivered their energising force. A journey from darkness into light? Not quite in this performance, where crepuscular qualities shielded the listener from the true horrors of the night.

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