Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia Orchestra/Maazel @ Royal Festival Hall, London

28 April 2011

Southbank Centre

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

With the sheer number of Mahler performances on offer in this anniversary year, it is perhaps inevitable that a few will fall short. Nowhere might such an occurrence be more glaring than as part of the Philharmonias and Lorin Maazels current Mahler cycle. And although the cycle has thus far been fairly well received, Thursday nights concert at the Royal Festival Hall (which included the beautifully immersive and rather more personal Rckert-Lieder, as well as the Fourth Symphony) didnt quite live up to Maazels interpretation of the Sixth Symphony the week before.

Simon Keenlyside, appearing less than comfortable with his left arm in a rather cumbersome sling, took a while to warm up in his rendition of the Rckert-Lieder, with some fragile sounding breaks in register in the opening Liebst du um Schnheit. The occasionally gruff low note (most notably in Ich atmet einen linden Duft and the final Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen) seemed to betray a general struggle in range. However, having heard Keenlyside give a masterful and moving performance of the Rckert-Lieder with the Rotterdam Philharmonic at last years Proms, I would be tempted to put Thursdays performance down to a lack of form on the night. Quite significantly, his cause wasnt aided much by Maazel, who surely could have provided a more delicate accompanying backdrop. As it was, this very large Philharmonia ensemble was prone to swallowing up the baritones efforts at times. More importantly, I wasnt wholly convinced by Maazels rather prosaic attempt to invest this music with the inward sense of withdrawal that the quieter numbers in particular call for.

Maazel has his fans, and Im sure they will point more readily to Keenlysides rendition than Maazels interpretation in attempting to account for a less than magical performance. For me, however, it wasnt so much the quality of the singing or even the playing that left me feeling slightly underwhelmed, but rather more Maazels reading of the score. The same criticism can be made of the Fourth Symphony, which followed the (probably unnecessary) interval.

The Fourth is undoubtedly Mahlers most accessible symphony. It also marks a significant departure, which is found above all, as Julian Johnson notes, in the degree of self-consciousness that the Fourth exhibits about its own musical language. Its remarkable now to learn that the ways in which Mahler plays with and manipulates Viennese traditions lead contemporary critics to condemn the work at its premire in 1901 for its satirizing and gross parody of traditional symphonic principles. In any case, the opportunities for revelling in this genial approach to Classical ideals are rife. However, the distinctive and mysteriously fleeting sleigh bell motif that begins the symphony (thereafter reappearing at key moments before its final manifestation in the serene and childlike song Das himmlische Leben in the final movement) sounded a little sapped of energy. Indeed, while the playing in the strings was at times broad and lyrically expansive (particularly in the various manifestations of the opening movements second subject material), Maazel himself occasionally cut a world-weary figure with his tendency of leaning every so often with one hand against the rail.

A dance-like Scherzo gave way to a broad third movement that was on the whole compelling but perhaps lacking in depth and intensity. With a slow movement such as this (which looks forward to the great Mahlerian Adagio of the Ninth Symphony) its so important to keep the musical thread intact, and I got the feeling at times that Maazels approach seldom threatened to truly transcend the undeniably compelling aspects that form the architectural framework of this movement. Mahlers solution to delivering the heavenly landscape that was promised in the third movement is to create a childlike vision of heaven in the finale, full of innocence and serenity. Soprano Sarah Fox gave a suitably compelling description of the heavenly delights, delivered in a round, buoyant tone and brimming with a kind-hearted, expressive feel. The final forte of the symphony comes in the form of a brief swell in the soprano and orchestra, describing how Even St. Ursula laughs: a moment of ravishing beauty and actually handled with a moving and simple tenderness. I sometimes wonder how far a successful finale is able to amend for earlier weaknesses. In this instance, Id say just about.

Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk

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