Young love in the heady swirl of secessionist Vienna was the main focus of this Mr and Mrs concert, Gustav Mahler’s sunny Fourth Symphony which premiered a month before he and Alma became engaged, contrasting with young Alma’s intimate and intense Sieben Lieder, written before they met. It was only after the death of their five-year-old daughter Maria and Alma’s affair with architect Walter Gropius that Gustav Mahler was pushed to approve the songs and even helped with their publication.

Kensho Watanabe © David Debalko
Kensho Watanabe
© David Debalko

Four of the six songs are settings of poems by Richard Dehmel and Otto Julius Bierbaum, all painting ethereal nocturnal images from nature and the environment, Die stille Stadt and Licht in der Nacht dreamily beguiling for a young bookish Alma. There is more of a story to Otto Erich Hartleben’s lullaby In meines Vaters Garten with the three sleeping princesses under the apple tree, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s clandestine affair must have struck a chord as Alma kept secret her relationship with her composition tutor Zemlinsky.

Standing in at short notice for an indisposed Mark Wigglesworth, young conductor Kensho Watanabe took charge of an expanded chamber orchestra in the lush arrangement of Alma Mahler’s songs by Colin and David Matthews, given the full romantic treatment and weight. The songs present a challenge for the singer with their chromatic twists and huge range requirements, but Karen Cargill’s warm mezzo opened out gloriously to convey moments of youthful passions while taking a measured softly confiding approach at other times. Like musical painting, Watanabe drew a palette of orchestral colours from his players with brightly shining woodwind and luminous string playing, but I felt the arrangements overwhelmed the material, a slight mismatch for Cargill in her heartfelt intimate interpretation. I was left wondering how Alma Mahler’s composition might have developed had her husband allowed it and that, sometimes, songs may be better left as originally intended.

As an opener, smaller forces with natural brass and hard stick timpani gave an energetic rendition of Mozart’s short overture to Idomeneo. Watanabe’s players created a rich organic well phrased sound, but the rather muted woodwind dampened its sparkle. With period instruments packed away and the bigger orchestra for Mahler’s Fourth, Watanabe was on more certain ground, his elegant style without a baton encouraged a joyfully light interpretation. The first movement with its folky sleigh bells and flutes was taken steadily with sunny sounds from the four horns and a warm depth from the strings, darkening spectacularly as clouds momentarily passed over Mahler’s heavenly blue sky. The second movement saw some fine solo work, with leader Benjamin Marquise Gilmore picking up his differently tuned violin, almost out of his seat at times in the grim battle with death, the clarinets making their mark blasting across the orchestra enjoying their shrill “Schalltrichter auf” moments. Watanabe brought fluid playing, teasingly holding the music back at key points, and then letting it go its own way, warming to the work in an especially lovely third movement with sensitive cellos and beautiful oboe playing a highlight. Finally, Karen Cargill emerged at the back of the orchestra to deliver a view from heaven, slightly distant but wondrous and almost childlike. A last-minute step-in is never easy, but I enjoyed this young conductor’s fresh interpretation, and if it lacked some of the sinister edginess in its dark corners, it made up for it by a lightness of touch and strong characterisation.