Mahler and Elgar are not two composers one would automatically associate with each other. For the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra the former is an intrinsic part of their tradition, the latter only sporadically on their music stands. So much so that on Thursday evening it was the first time ever that they performed his Cockaigne Overture. Apart from the Pomp and Circumstance Marches and Enigma Variations, Elgar is also peripheral for Amsterdam audiences. The questions “Which symphony is it?” and “Who’s the composer?” zoomed around the Concertgebouw foyers. Programmed after Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, Elgar’s gigantic Symphony no. 2 in E flat major demonstrated what the two composers have in common, beyond the facts that they were coevals and that Mahler conducted Elgar’s work.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

It has been said before that we need to stop thinking about Elgar as a quintessentially English composer. The influences on his music, varied and continental, and the originality of his musical devices contradict this deficient description. However, performance tradition of Elgar’s oeuvre is richest in Britain, and the leadership of Sir John Eliot Gardiner held the promise of that tradition. The outcome was Elgar in dramatic splashes of colour, by no means subtle in terms of detail, and at times excessively slow or loud. Elgar dedicated his Cockaigne Overture to “my many friends the members of British orchestras”. In this exuberant portrait of imperial London, all the musicians get their turn under the spotlight and the RCO, as always, delivered gorgeous colours across all sections. Gardiner went for massive sweep and mighty sound. The brass machine-gunned their rhythms like the marching band of a military superpower. The slow music accompanying the strolling lovers was thick and sensuous and, well, Mahlerian. After all, rich orchestral colour is a characteristic of both composers. London bells pealed out gloriously as the orchestra pressed on towards the explosive finale. Not much Cockney jocularity then, but a rousing display of musical prowess.

After this feat of strength, Gardiner’s approach to Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder was non-interventionist by comparison. He seemed to trust the musicians, for whom these songs are familiar territory, to strike an artful balance of quivering tinctures. This strategy worked better in the shorter, single-idea songs like “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!” (Look not into my songs!). Mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg sang with clarity of text and emotion, although it took a while for her intonation to settle. More outspoken conducting could have added immediacy to the two existential contemplations, “Um Mitternacht” (At Midnight) and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I am lost to the world). Hallenberg brought both timbral warmth and hushed reflection to Friedrich Rückert’s words about isolation and the human struggle. The five poems are not linked in any way except for their author, and singers are free to decide the order of performance. Hallenberg chose to place the tortured “Um Mitternacht” in the middle of the cycle, moving to the back of the orchestra to pour out melismas of great beauty. In contrast, in “Ich bin der Welt”, the final song, she imparted quiet resignation, reminding us that the words are not only about being an outsider, but also about finding solace, as the poet writes, “in my own Heaven”.

In Elgar’s Second Symphony, Gardiner returned to broad strokes and strong statements. Mood and speed change constantly in this complex work. Inspired by deeply personal experiences of love, loss and internal striving, it is akin to a musical stream of consciousness. Like Mahler’s symphonies, it is vast in emotional scope although, unlike some of Mahler’s work, it does not try to straddle the cosmos. In terms of the human world, Elgar’ Second Symphony feels representative and comprehensive. Its separate components are as unpredictable as life itself. Repeatedly, the music gears up to an ensemble forte, only for it to dissolve, for example, into a woodwind solo. Elgar ties the four movements together with recurring thematic references, creating a non-progressive but complete emotional experience, with highs, lows, false starts and moments of dark doubt. Its sorrowful second movement, the Larghetto, is as passionately wondrous as any Mahler adagio.

Gardiner’s muscular line of attack served the climaxes in the score best, as when the swift playfulness of the third movement, the scherzo, turns into a blood-curdling percussive tumult. Ever agile and alert, the RCO took the quick leaps, ascents and descents in their stride. Gardiner careened dizzily through the wild leaps of the long first movement, sparks flying, leaving little room for revealing musical textures. His loud was very loud, and his slow very slow. Lasting sixteen minutes, the Larghetto loitered deliberately, at times coming perilously close to stopping, its radiance dimmed. Repeatedly swelling to full volume, the orchestra rode the crests of the wind-tossed fourth movement with unrelenting intensity. An occasionally thrilling, but, on the whole, tiring performance.