In the second half of the 20th century, no conductor did more to establish Mahler at the core of the symphonic repertoire than Leonard Bernstein. It was fitting, therefore, that Marin Alsop – Bernstein’s protégé in his final years and a great advocate for her mentor’s music – should pair Mahler and Bernstein symphonies for this second London Symphony Orchestra concert marking his centenary. Mahler’s First rustles with the anticipation of spring and new beginnings; Bernstein’s First is darker, written in the wake of World War 2, inspired by the biblical lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah.

Marin Alsop and Leonard Bernstein with the LSO in 1990 © London Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop and Leonard Bernstein with the LSO in 1990
© London Symphony Orchestra

A brooding, unsettled atmosphere was established right from the start of the “Jeremiah” Symphony, the horn’s defiant question given a querulous response from the flutes. During the first movement’s neoclassical rigour, Alsop was keen to allow the woodwind phrases to really sing out, gesturing to the violins to keep a lid on things. Bernstein’s open-hearted, big spirit was at the fore in the jazzy inflections of the Profanation second movement. One could imagine the composer jiving away on the podium to the maracas-led percussion with more pizzazz, but a coaxing smile, jutting elbows and angular stabs did the trick just as well for Alsop.

It’s the third movement that provides the emotional climax, which Bernstein himself described as “the cry of Jeremiah, as he mourns his beloved Jerusalem”. He uses a mezzo-soprano to give vent to this mourning, singing texts drawn from the first five chapters of Lamentations. Jamie Barton, making her LSO debut, wrapped her dark, glowing mezzo around the Hebrew texts warmly, drawing a fine balance between grief and nobility. A flute duo offered consolation, the symphony eventually drawing into a great sigh of contemplation. The “Jeremiah” is a stronger work than Bernstein’s Third (the “Kaddish” which I heard in Sunday’s concert here) but it’s never going to be a staple of the repertoire. All power to Alsop and others who champion this music so whole-heartedly.

Marin Alsop © Adrianne White
Marin Alsop
© Adrianne White

Although Mahler’s First contains the parody of a funeral march, we’re far removed from grief and lamentation. It is imbued with the countryside and bursting with life. Alsop set a cautious tempo for the opening, shimmering strings and woodwind birdsong conjuring an atmosphere of expectation. Dappled light and quivering leaves evoked the spirit of Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs”, but no dragon lurks in these glades. Instead, the song Ging heut' Morgen über's Feld (I went this morning over the field) – the happiest of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – is quoted, here played with a sense of awe and wonder. After this relaxed opening, everything suddenly clicked into place, Alsop letting the orchestra off the leash, the movement closing with fierce double bass pizzicati and boisterous horns braying out in jubilation.

The second movement Ländler was heavy and rustic, as if our peasants had enjoyed a few too many Knödel for lunch. Alsop exaggerated the pauses in the Trio to teasing effect. The Frère Jacques tune opening the third movement, passed from double bass to bassoon to tuba, was treated with great care and sincerity, before being punctuated by klezmer outbursts, led by roguish E flat clarinets. Although the finale wasn’t as unbuttoned as Bernstein himself used to favour, Alsop worked hard to shape the climaxes powerfully, eventually reaching exuberance when the horn section – and the fourth trombonist – rose to their feet for a triumphant close. You had a feeling Lenny would have been on his feet too.