The Barbican welcomed Marin Alsop and the LSO last Sunday for a concert whose main talking point was always going to be the nature and effectiveness of Mahlers retuschens (retouchings) of Beethovens orchestral works. Indeed, the programme in general seemed focused on the aesthetic question of orchestrations, featuring a selection of Seven Lieder by Alma Mahler, arranged by Mahler specialists Colin and David Matthews and sung by Sarah Connolly.
The songs themselves form part of a small surviving catalogue of works by Alma (all songs with piano), the growth of which was stifled by her husband who insisted she give up any ambition of being a composer upon becoming his wife. The Seven Lieder have strong melodic lines, often marked with the sort of passion and intensity typical of the late-Romantic style in whose harmonic language they are couched. The dark and at times deeply affecting Licht in der Nacht afforded a greater scope for musical expression (both vocally and in terms of the orchestral writing) than the opening numbers, which perhaps relied more on the often mesmerising (and seemingly effortless) quality of Connollys resonant vocal interpretation.
A more conversational use of orchestral forces in Waldseligkeit underpinned moments of soaring melodic intensity, demonstrating the strength and clarity of Connollys upper range. And while the strophic settings of In meines Vaters Garten and Bei dir ist es traut offered the chance for some inventive variations in the orchestral arrangements (at times reminiscent of Mahler himself but more often looking forward to the likes of Berg), it was the final song the through-composed Erntelied that demonstrated the better writing and more emotive content, which Connolly realised to the full.
Beethovens Leonore Overture No. 3 has much less of Mahler in it than the Seventh Symphony, and to that end I believe it sounded better in performance. Most of Mahlers changes in the overture come in the form of dynamic alterations, or by capitalising on a technique of thinning out (for the sake of balance or clarity) employed by Beethoven himself. Whilst Mahler doubles the winds in both the overture and the symphony, its in the symphony where most of the notable edits are found, especially with regard to dynamics but also (and significantly) with regard to the rewriting of instrumental parts, particularly the trumpets and horns. Too often this resulted in a more generalised texture that smoothed out the nuances and subtlety of the original writing, the Seventh Symphonys exuberant and driving finale notwithstanding. The temptation, for instance, of making the most out of sudden crescendos or diminuendos with larger forces frequently made those dynamic effects seem like isolated incidents rather than contextually relevant pieces of musical writing. The overture, however, did not suffer in the same way. Indeed, it was performed with greater ease and clarity than the symphony, which at times sounded too overblown and heavy-handed (especially in the second movement). If Mahlers re-orchestration of Beethovens Seventh Symphony has the effect of over-Romanticising Beethovens music, then it would be fair to claim that Alsop and the LSO likewise lacked that necessary sense of Classical proportion and nuance in their interpretation.
One might wonder then, and with justification, as to the actual point of Mahlers retouchings. To claim they are altogether pointless would be to disregard such valid practical considerations as hall size and acoustics, or the fact that Mahler genuinely believed he was complying with what he thought Beethoven himself would have done with larger forces (in fact, at the premiere of the Seventh Symphony, Beethoven used a string section about the same size as Mahlers, and the winds would probably have been doubled as well). However, when the performance itself falls short of convincing a listener as to the benefits of certain aesthetic modifications, then one can only conclude that in this instance, less is definitely more.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk