Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Maazel and Philharmonia: Mahler #5 and Mozart in Hull

On Saturday, 29.May 2011, I once again had the pleasure of attending a concert conducted by Maestro Lorin Maazel. He conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Victorian City Hall of Hull. The first part of the concert was Mozart's Piano concerto No.9, KV271. Pianist Lise de la Salle gave a superb performance of this work, with crystal-clear intonation. The acoustics of the concert hall appeared to support the piano sound very well, allowing to hear every nuance of the piano play in bright clarity. The orchestra performed flawlessly well in its complement to the piano.

But of course, the main "attraction" of this evening was Mahler's Symphony No.5, and the Mozart was merely an appetizer. After the break the orchestra took seat in its full configuration, the elevated seats in the back now occupied by an extended brass section. Mahler's original score calls for 6 horns, 4 trumpets, and 3 trombones. Here, however, were 7 horns, 5 trumpets, and 4 trombones! Maazel had chosen to place the strings in the contemporary string setup, which is from left to right: Violins 1, Violins 2, Violas, Celli. Basses were in the right back behind the Celli. It appears that in the past (example: 2001/02 season) the Philharmonia Orchestra had used different possible setups, and it is interesting to note that Lorin Maazel at that time (as seen in the sketches on that web site) appeared to have chosen the traditional string setup with opposing 1st and 2nd violins in the front of the orchestra (which is the seating layout which I would opt for).

The solo trumpet fanfare began with great impact, and then the Mahlerian sound universe unfolded under the conduction of Lorin Maazel. He took the tempi of the first two movements a bit slower than Bernstein in the 1973 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic (which in my view is THE reference recording), similar to the slower tempo of Valerie Gergiev at the 2010 Proms. The overall duration of the whole symphony was 80 minutes, and they were filled with the emotional roller coaster of Mahler's expressive music. The orchestra performed exceptionally well, following Maazel's precise conducting, the instruments were played with excellent intonation, and all the nuances of this music came across in all their glory. There was, however, a slight problem with the overall instrumental balance: maybe it was a flaw of the acoustics of the concert hall, maybe it was the elevated position of the brass players in that amphitheatre-like setting in which they were placed, maybe it was the fact that the number of brass players had been increased from Mahler's already generous setting - but the brass appeared too loud in several instances. I do not mean here the expressive outbursts and glorious triumphant sections - these were just right and had the appropriate impact. But in parts when the brass really did not have much meaningfull to say (yes, such segments do exist, even in Mahler's symphonies), it was too prominent and covered sometimes the main melody by the strings. It might have been a good idea also to strengthen the first and second violin section. Violas, celli and basses appeared to stand up against the brass well, and also the woodwinds were well audible, but the violins seemed sometimes to drown within the sound of the rest of the orchestra.

But overall a grandious and enjoyable performance by a world-class orchestra and one of the best conductors in the world.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

18.May: 100th Anniversary of Mahler's Death

On 18.May 1911 one of the greatest composers ever died in Vienna: Gustav Mahler. So much has been written about him and his music, I really have nothing to add. Except maybe a note about why I enjoy his music so much: it is the most "rollercoaster-like" music, expressing emotions ranging from utmost happiness to deepest desperation. I do not know any other composer who was able to capture human emotions to such an extend in music.

Here is my contribution to the commemoration of his death: "Urlicht", the 4th movement of his 2nd Symphony.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

CD: Walter conducts Mahler's 9th Symphony

On one of my recent long motorway drives (on the M62) I had the opportunity to listen to another treasure from my CD collection: a recording of Gustav Mahler's 9th Symphony, played by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (the other VPO), conducted by Bruno Walter live in the Musikvereinssaal in Vienna - on 16.January 1938. This is a remarkable recording for several reasons: despite its age the recording sounds quite fresh. Sure, it is in mono, and the frequency spectrum is quite limited, but one can hear the immense musicality. This recording received the "Classic CD" Historical Award in 1997. Walter was the conductor who had led the premiere performance of this work in 1912. And this recording is significant for another reason: it can be seen as the "swan song" of the pre-war Vienna. Not exactly anymore Stefan Zweig's "Welt von gestern" (world of yesterday), but not yet the 1000-year-long future that would begin for Austria two months later... Many of the people in the audience of this concert would be leaving Vienna a few weeks after this concert, and Vienna would never be the same as it was.

A marvellous recording, from many viewpoints. It is available at Amazon.