Prom 69: Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Chailly – Messiaen & Mahler

Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
Symphony No.6

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 September, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Riccardo Chailly. Photograph: Gert MothesA concert of two distinct halves! Olivier Messiaen’s 1964 tribute to the dead of both world wars, each of the five movements headed by quotations from the Bible, and scored for a vast array of woodwinds, brass and percussion (no strings attached!), may not seem standard Leipzig Gewandhaus fare, but was given a compelling and rewarding outing here. Messiaen’s instructions sanction performances in the open air and even on mountaintops, so the space to fill of the Royal Albert Hall came into its own, the sinewy textures, often gong- and bell-inflected, effortlessly filling the void. Riccardo Chailly (the Gewandhaus’s music director), mindful of the requested long pauses between movements, led a solemn 32-minute ritual, Olivier Messiaen not afraid to let rip with the apocalyptic gong crescendos (but did we have the largest and deepest-sounding such instrument available? Not if Simon Rattle’s LSO account last year is a guide) or implacably sustain the long winding road of the final section, increasingly intense and affirmative, from darkest depths to celestial clouds.

But Mahler 6 was such a disappointment, way too fast in the first movement and curiously lightweight in sound (despite ten double basses), Chailly breezing through this opener with little consequence, and with no suggestion of the stoical hero’s struggle with the elements and various evils. The pace was forced, ‘Alma’s Theme’ was thrown away (the exposition repeat told us nothing new), the insistence on primary colours palled, percussion and brass dwarfing the strings (a problem with risers maybe) and suggesting that such balance preferences may work better in the Neues Gewandhaus, with even the mountaintop episode (here a link back to Messiaen) seeming impatient, the Gallery-positioned cowbells hard in tone.

Cartoon reacting to the first performance of Mahler's 6th symphony, 19/1/1907. Caption reads: Good gracious! Fancy leaving out the motor horn! Ah well, now I have an excuse for writing another symphony.In terms of the middle movements’ ordering (click on link below), Chailly was seemingly correct to place the Andante next (at least regarding its position during the composer’s lifetime, only for Alma, Frau Mahler, to then muddy the waters); but, quite frankly, after that glib, square-bashing first movement, it scarcely mattered, for however beautifully played and expressed it was, this slow movement was no Heaven-sent corollary to what had gone before. Ironically, Chailly’s way the now third movement scherzo would have been better second, continuing this hard-driven, angular and detail-exaggerated conception, the movement’s potential for longueur beaten into submission, but so too its courtlier episodes.

As for the huge finale, there was a visual aspect, a very large box and a very large mallet with which to hit it. It might have looked impressive, but come the moments of hammer-blow cataclysm, although the sound was suitably non-metallic, as Mahler directs, there was little aftershock and the two (rather than Mahler’s superstitious three, which some conductors reinstate) crisis-points went for little, the movement initially under-motivated if gathering some if not enough impetus later; and, the second stroke was louder than the first, contrary to Alma’s dictum that the former one should do the most damage. On that she was correct.

Conductors such as Barbiriolli, Gielen, Horenstein and Tennstedt (and others) have dug deep into this great symphony – and, if you will, stared death in the face. Not even by comparison was Chailly found to be superficial and carousing, the LGO’s playing impressive if dutiful. Only at the work’s very end, when fate finally ‘wins’, was there the impression of something meaningful beyond the notes, and the closing silence had a charge, too – but 80 or so minutes too late.

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