Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Chopin: Piano Concerto No 1; Mahler: Symphony No 5: LSO @ Barbican Hall, London

28 February 2006

It was fascinating to hear Mahler’s Fifth Symphony the day after hearing Berg’s Wozzeck.

Both composers dwelt in Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century, and though Mahler was Berg’s senior, one can sense the same fin-de-sicle decadence in both works.

Particularly, the use of distorted Viennese waltzes gives the impression of a whirlwind society about to run out of steam; the comic elements in both Wozzeck and Mahler’s Fifth are hauntingly grotesque.

In this performance of the Mahler by Myung-Whun Chung and the London Symphony Orchestra, blazing passion and deep melancholy were intertwined. The orchestra was in fabulous form, especially in the rousing first, second and fifth movements, all of which particularly showcased the LSO’s extraordinary, world-class brass players.

Written in the first summer of his marriage to Alma Schindler, Mahler’s Fifth is his most visceral and human work. The direct emotion of most of the score is the result of a greater clarity of expression than in the previous symphonies. For the first movement, he provides a trumpet fanfare that announces a funeral march; the second movement elaborates the same theme. For the central movement, Mahler wrote a large-scale Scherzo blending Viennese waltzes with the Lndler. The alarmingly popular Adagietto has limpid, refined textures, whilst the complex counterpoint of the fifth is Mahler’s response to a detailed study of the works of JS Bach.

This was a confident performance by an orchestra in its prime. The visits of Chung to the LSO usually reap excellent results indeed, it’s not so long since they performed this symphony at the Barbican together to a rousing reception but this time, there was a special magic in the air.

From the opening bars, Chung who conducted from memory insisted on total concentration, and the musicians responded well. The opening trumpet call was magnificent, with a carefully graded crescendo to introduce the rest of the orchestra. The opening material was briskly played, and the mourning second theme had poignancy. After the hysteria of the central section, the horns and flutes entered for the recapitulation, and at this point the performance bloomed: the trumpet returned, muted and distant.

The second movement had great energy about it, with a big opening on trumpets, horns and strings, giving way to the murmuring melody in the cellos with wind chatterings above. Perhaps the Scherzo lost its way a little, but there was buoyancy in the waltz theme, and it was all highly poetic.

The final two movements run together, and the Adagietto was especially moving, with an almost claustrophobically quiet dynamic for the final passage. Sending us into the night with a blast, the orchestral rallied together to shape each of the three big sections with dramatic ascent.

Before the interval, we heard Chopin’s First Piano Concerto, played by the young Chinese pianist Yundi Li. From the start, this was an uncomfortable performance, with the violins lacking focus in the opening ritornello and Li failing to provide the profound beauty of this music. His octave runs were impressive, and throughout his technical grasp of the music was generally fine, despite a few clipped arpeggios. Yet Chung and the orchestra also seemed to lack inspiration, and the performance really dragged by the end.

Nevertheless, the Mahler made the evening special.

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