The superb acoustics of the Concertgebouw made for a memorable concert by the Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest recently, in no small part because much of the programme had the emotive draw of swelling "film music" in one form or another. And if Gustav Mahler's First Symphony cannot justifiably fit that description, then at least none will dispute that it calls up all order of visual impression and dramatic turn.

Marc Albrecht © Marco Borggreve
Marc Albrecht
© Marco Borggreve

In Amsterdam's venerable hall, an eclectic and casual audience included a slew of students in its uppermost rows, concert-goers keen to hear the jazz-like syncopation and changes in tempi that characterize Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film Scene. A work that attests to the brassiness of a Hollywood genre, this short piece features sections that belie a brute force, but one mitigated by the strings' occasional alignment into a simple musical line. The bassoon, flute and horns share top billing, even if their bravado is tempered at the end of the piece, when everything dissolves into quiet oblivion, much like the length of many a young startlet’s Hollywood career.

Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major featured next on the programme. The young Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma gave a highly lyrical opening, and her second theme betrayed the Romantic sentimentality that typifies the big screen’s greatest love stories. The orchestra produced a creamy sound that slid out over the audience with a blanket of musical swells and ripples. Yet the short and distinctively subtle Largo provided recuperative harbour after the bang of the dynamic first movement. It bent and expanded in unexpected, otherworldly intervals, almost as if coming back from the world of dreams. The final movement featured long sequences of pizzicato among the strings, the strong presence of six double bass and muted horns, and an ending that could be likened to a musical starburst. 

Mahler’s First Symphony, scored for some 100 musicians and composed in 1887-1888, was last on the programme. Poorly received when it first premiered in Budapest in 1889, it only took its final, four-movement form − after several revisions − in 1896, within seven years of the completion of the Concertgebouw. Not surprisingly, the Amsterdam hall suits the symphony as comfortably as the left does the right in a pair of kid gloves.

In the score noted as “slow” and “dragging”, the first movement began as a serene illumination. As conductor, the graceful Marc Albrecht drove the first five or so minutes with so little tension that the very bottom of the work seemed to fall out and was, for my taste, almost too saccharine. Yet during the second movement, famous for the 3/4 Ländler rhythms, the six basses romped through with great enthusiasm. After the Ländler came the light-footed and lyrical strains that recalled the Viennese salons of the turn of the century, the flutes offering a sound flutter to mimic the sugary delights of the city before the first world war.

The third movement, the slowest in the symphony, is set in the country. It begins with the familiar strain of Frère Jacques, but in the minor key, a theme that purportedly was conceived to allude to a hunter’s funeral. Here, the orchestra brought to mind a circle of 17th century Dutch figures in a vigorous dance. Particularly the oboe, whose striking melody “popped” out brilliantly in the third theme, leaned on klezmer music that in turn drove the full force of the orchestra.

Albrecht’s conducting style showed itself as highly animated throughout; he operates almost a pantomime artist, in fact, even marking downbeats with his arms slapping his sides. As such, his cues were unmistakable, and in the final movement, he had the players move from theme to theme with the energy of a gale force wind. The strings stirred a virtual fury of musical notes, and the powerful horns stood up on stage for the symphony’s last 76 measures to have their sound carry as clearly and as far as possible. As we all galloped together towards the symphony’s true climax, I could only imagine that for whatever muscular and intellectual strength Albrecht’s job demanded, the pay off would be the true rush it must be to conduct works such as this one.  

***11