Delivered with restrained warmth, the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jiří Bělohlávek presented Schumann’s Piano Concerto as fit for a cosy smoking-room. The occasional off-kilter moments of the score were performed with perhaps authentically polite control, but left some harmonies and gestures crying out for a wider emotional and dynamic range. There was nuanced, vivid phrasing from pianist Francesco Piemontesi and his sound was fully integrated with that of the BBCSO, complete with Senta-like yearnings from Richard Simpson’s oboe adding gleam to the smoothed edges.
Warmed up by the Schumann ‘support act’ the BBCSO were able to rip into the first movement of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony with fearsome bite. Teasing out previously unheard detail from wind and brass, piquant glissandi from strings and a wonderfully cataclysmic din from the percussion, this was an arresting opening movement, full of daggers and hammers.
The main things to listen for in a live Mahler Symphony are the slight mistakes and fluffs. Less than perfect entries, slightly mistuned brass, and generally wayward off-stage band always add earthy grit to a performance, because there’s nothing duller than a spotless rendition of Mahler. Written into the score are near-impossible feats of coordination and balance, which go a long way to secure a thrilling performance but the musicians also have to mean it, there has to be daring and guts.
This was the first performance I’d been to in which the second movement, with its Haydn-esque wit, didn’t drag or run out of steam. Bělohlávek and the BBCSO managed to give this movement a more sprightly edge than is usual — perhaps Mahler’s note in the score “No rushing” makes most conductors afraid to treat it as the light-relief that it is.
The 3rd movement is all water and worship (quoting heavily from Mahler’s own song about St Anthony Sermon to the Fish) but for anyone who has heard or seen this symphony before (and knows how it ends) the whole movement is mainly a lesson in deferred gratification. We twitch in our seats impatiently for the 4th and 5th movements of this monumental drama. It was with simple solemnity that mezzo Katarina Karnéus sang the 4th with the beautifully bitter outpouring of song ‘Ulricht’, milking the sourness of a simple phrases like ‘Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein’ (‘How much better to live in Heaven’) for every drop.
Followed by raucous offstage band crashing over sublime solo flute passages, the brilliant confusion of it all led to the chorus of around seventy students (who had been seated for about an hour) rising from their seats, with foreboding intent. The remarkably young Guildhall Symphony Chorus did themselves very proud with their performance of this staggering piece, all singing from memory.
Mahler himself was apparently rather liberal in his addition of glissandi when performing works by other composers, and the unexpected vocal scoop up to the highest shattering peak at the finale would have thrilled him as it did the audience at the Barbican.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk