Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Marin Alsop @ Barbican Hall, London

26 November 2006

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is stupendously difficult to perform its demands are immense, both technically and emotionally.

The five movements can gel perfectly, but the seemingly disparate styles of a funeral march, a love song and a fugal, Bachian Rondo can seem incongruous in the wrong hands.

Osmo Vnsk made a valiant attempt to perform the work in this year’s Proms, but his melange of ideas just fell short of cohesion.

Similarly, Marin Alsop‘s Fifth was thrilling for much of its running time; implausible for the rest. The gloriously blazing final Tutti professed itself to be the culmination of a great performance, worthy of any gushing critical rhetoric. What had come before, on the other hand, posed more questions than were answered. The interpretation was not specifically poor indeed, anyone who goes through the Adagio in under ten minutes has my vote but for all Alsop’s dynamic posturing, too many passages meandered; too many moments failed to ignite.

The first movement boasted a firm opening, with the solo trumpet secure and well structured dynamically. Equally good was a ritardando before the second Trio, which held the house in awed suspense.

But as a whole, this movement was less of a harrowing funeral march and more a bit of a dog’s dinner. On the simplest level, there were too many wrong notes, with horns (again) unable to reach the level of musicianship of, say, the solid trombone section. Then too many notes were cut short, with staccati given so little force as to be inaudible. The first Trio should be an impassioned cry of despair, but it barely made an impression, with violins subdued and a brass pedal floating dangerously above the texture.

And so the symphony continued. The violence of the second movement was powerfully communicated, with the tuba resonating especially viciously and many passages seeming fit to burst with explosive anger. The scurrying double basses in this movement’s chorale also provided great drama. But why did so many lines drift along to no apparent end product? A horn fluff at the start of the third movement did not bode well, and while much of this dance-infused fifteen minutes snapped colourfully by, a pizzicato accompaniment would go astray or the double basses would forget to phrase to the end of a line.

After this the conducting did seem to improve. Though strings still soared in the Adagio, Alsop made sure to fragment the texture when necessary a leap up on the violins would choke on itself to remind us that this is no simple outpouring of sentiment. At the recapitulation, the harpist spread her chord bizarrely wide, but this was easily forgotten. And then the Rondo-Finale was immensely pleasing, even if Alsops melodramatic gestures did distract players from the beat. Tempi were just right, the London Symphony Orchestra played their hearts out and everyone left the concert hall with loving smiles plastered on their faces. Overall, a missed opportunity.

Previously, John Adams’ Fearful Symmetries was worthwhile but unspectacular. The violins really shaped their phrases, though pitches seemed to splay the higher they went. Alsop’s reading lost a sense of the Adams’ mechanical, restless rhythms better communicated were the shifting sonic landscapes and ethereal alterations of texture.

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