"O weep, child, weep", sings an alto in the Hymn to Saint Cecilia (1942), to a figure that Britten lifted pretty much verbatim from the opening of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto. The latter work, composed some seven years earlier and dedicated 'to the memory of an angel' (Manon, the deceased teenage daughter of Walter Gropius and Gustav Mahler's widow Alma), is as mournful as that line by Auden implies.
Berg did not intend the concerto to double as his own farewell to life, but with Lulu left unfinished it was his final completed composition as well as his most rapt and lyrical creation. The composer's death at 50 effaced the promise it seemed to hold of autumnal music to come.
A fragile, introspective concerto, it fares best at the hands of musicians who, dare it be said, are in touch with their feminine side. Janine Jansen caught the mood precisely in a diaphanous performance whose opening bars had the white-toned dignity of a solo chorister, their restrained emotion echoed in the delicate accompaniment of the London Symphony Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda. There followed 30 elegiac minutes as the colloquy between soloist, conductor and orchestra ran its course. The homogeneity of the strings complemented and enhanced Jansen's own lyricism; indeed, textures throughout were exquisitely coloured by the attentive maestro. Even the LSO's dynamic brass section contrived to sound like an extension of the woodwind.
The famous reference to Bach's Es ist genug suggested serenity but little optimism in what was, thanks to Noseda, the quietest account of the concerto I can recall. His dynamic choices made Berg's echo of Brahms's Wiegenlied all the more moving and caused it to haunt the mind throughout Jansen's sustained, aching final note. "Guten Abend, gute Nacht" indeed.
The Barbican Hall proved an ideal venue for Noseda and Jansen's collaboration: its immediate acoustic revealed substrata of micro-details at every turn and showed just what the LSO can do with the gas turned down. Perhaps understandably, the musicians were rewarded for such a controlled display by a reading of Mahler's Symphony no. 7 that threatened to boil over. The sensation of collars being loosened and top buttons undone seemed to affect both conductor and orchestra, for their performance was as unbridled as the Berg had been contained.
The Seventh is consistently dubbed a 'problem' symphony because, for all its attractiveness, the musical arguments don't always seem to hang together. Noseda's solution, to go hell for leather in the outer movements and favour primary colours during the interior sequence of two Nachtmusiks and a Scherzo, made for an exhilarating ride, and perhaps for many that's enough. I found it a little garish.
Mahler's questioning, questing introductory statement soon gave way to high-energy playing from an orchestra that met any definition of brilliance, be it technical, musical or sonic. Noseda's reading was exhaustingly fiery: during the first movement his baton became a hammer and speed was of the essence.
The Nachtmusik movements, by contrast, were ravishingly played. The guileless simplicity of the first had the charm of a Wunderhorn song; the second a warm, pastoral glow with mercurial mood changes and a romantic string sound that was all the sweeter for being stung by the lemon tang of guitar and mandolin. Nestling between these two oases the Scherzo lay in baleful wait, and Noseda was an unrestrained Mephisto in his delivery of its dance of death.
At the Rondo Finale, as galloping timpani rode in, it felt as though he had summoned the Fifth Cavalry to chase away the shade. Thereafter there was no stopping him. Mahler's sea of musical ideas survived the onslaught and the whole thing earned massive applause, although whether for Noseda's interpretation or for the likes of Paul Milner's spectacular bass-trombone-playing is open to question.
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