In Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis relates a story in the form of reverse chronology, the effect of which is profoundly unsettling for the reader. Mahler does much the same in his Fourth Symphony. Here, the finale is essentially an evocation of childhood, albeit with grisly elements (the composer insists in the score that there be no parody), composed a decade before the rest, whereas the opening movement comes all street-savvy and worldly-wise. In Mahler’s scheme of things the “songs of experience” therefore come before those of “innocence”.
Pairing Sibelius with Mahler in a concert is nominally quite daring. When they met in Helsinki in 1907 the two composers found it hard to agree about anything, least of all the content of symphonies. Nonetheless, Sibelius once described the finale of his Violin Concerto as “a danse macabre across the Finnish wastelands”, and Mahler’s shortest symphony is shot through with references to human mortality, with the Grim Reaper making more than just a cameo appearance in the second movement.
Undeniably, Mahlerian interpretation continues to evolve, a development the composer would certainly have approved of, given his outburst in Vienna that “tradition means sloppiness”. To be fair to Daniel Harding, there were a lot of Mahlerian elements in his reading of the work, but it is questionable whether they were all in the right place and in the right order. This was a very modern realisation, with orchestral details being seized upon which pointed well into the 20th century – Berg was so overcome at the Munich première that he appropriated Mahler’s baton – at the expense of those that hark back nostalgically to a Schubertian sound-world. Not much in the way of repose was on offer: despite the weight of the strings in the opening movement, there was little warmth or indeed relaxation, with the basic pulse often hurried along, despite the composer’s instructions not to hurry here or in the remaining movements. The phantasmagoric qualities in the orchestration were very much to the fore, with whiplash effects produced by the incisive upper strings, screeching wind, piercing trumpets and the icy chill of a triangle. No space for any eiderdown and the prospect of soft slumber; here the nightmarish scenarios were just around the corner.
The second movement, with its scordatura notation for the solo violin, continued the sense of discomposure, emphasising the “Where are we now?” moments. To be sure, there was some coherence to the way this movement was presented, with a clockwork quality to some of the phrasing, a metallic stamp to even the glockenspiel and an attitude that would not have been out of place on the parade-ground. There was an acidulous tang to the slow movement as the music moved into the minor mode, led by oboe and cor anglais, with only a momentary glimpse of the celestial gates being flung open towards the close. My heart at least craved rather more emotional indulgence.
Was it a good idea to place the soprano soloist towards the back of the stage and behind the harp? There I have my doubts, because Christiane Karg was thus prevented from communicating more directly with her audience, the voice used merely as an additional strand in the orchestral texture. With initially uniform coloration it did not fully realise its potential until the final two stanzas.
The concert had started with the world première of a work by Jack Sheen, as part of the LSO Panufnik Scheme for emerging composers. In one sense, there was a direct line between this ten-minute piece and the performance of the symphony that followed later. Entitled Lung, it leads to an immediate and powerful sense of unease and disorientation. Although Sheen describes it as being centred on ideas of expansion and contraction, for me this felt like walking on shifting sands, the ground slowly heaving and then subsiding. A clear case of the movement of tectonic plates.
Between these two episodes of turmoil, there was an opportunity to savour Nikolaj Znaider’s accomplished playing of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Beginning with the beautifully hushed opening, from which the solo violin only gradually emerged – a mesmerising moment that similarly characterised the opening of the slow movement - this was a rhapsodic, even at times indulgent interpretation. In the Adagio this developed into a night of the soul, underpinned by fine lyrical shaping and a careful gradation of the dynamics so that the close was like a final exhalation of breath. With Znaider emphasising the dotted rhythms of the opening statement, the finale had a mercurial quality, taking it away from the world of folk-dance and into the realm of spectres. At one stage the violin plays in its highest register against spooky sounds from the wind, neatly brought out by Harding, who elsewhere was unnecessarily forceful in his accompaniment.
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