The Mahler Chamber Orchestra presented a Russian program with a twist; “A Russian Flirt with Haydn”. All four works and three composers that graced the stage were influenced by Haydn, most obviously Schnittke and his Moz-Art à la Haydn. The music worked well together, though I would suspect that this is more due to the Russian background than Haydn’s influence. Still, with this concert and the rest of the program this year, the Holland Festival has once again established itself as one of the most exciting cultural festivals in The Netherlands.

Alisa Weilerstein © Jamie Jung
Alisa Weilerstein
© Jamie Jung

In writing the Classical Symphony, one of his most accessible and popular works, Prokofiev was influenced by Haydn. It misses some of the edge and idiosyncracy that his later works enjoy, but it’s a fun symphony, with the last movement being especially recognizable as Prokofiev. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, led by Pablo Heras-Casado, delivered a high-energy performance, dictating the energy and contrasts in the work as opposed to indicating the beat and tempo. This did not decrease the quality of the performance; the orchestra were absolutely solid, obviously being familiar with the work.

Every once in a while you come across a soloist who redefines your conception of a piece of music. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1 is an extraordinary work, but it was only after this performance by Alisa Weilerstein that I realized quite how extraordinary it really is. Weilerstein delivered the most beautiful performance of the concerto I have seen, not only because of her technical skill but because of her interpretation. Her cello became like a river, flooding the concert hall with both her own and Shostakovich’s emotions. This cadenza in the third movement was breathtaking, but the highlight for me was the opening movement. Full of Shostakovich’s own DSCH motif, Weilerstein and the orchestra dived in head-first, giving a fearless interpretation of a difficult concerto. Weilerstein carries her emotion in her face as well as in her playing, while remaining genuine and above all incredibly intense. The pure anguish in the music became almost tangible, making the listening experience verge on the painful. Not because the music hurt, but because it drew you into it and consumed you. This was quite a feat for the soloist and orchestra, and I do not expect to see this performance topped for a long time.

After the break the Mahler Chamber Orchestra returned in darkness, with Schnittke’s Moz-Art à la Haydn - a work that has choreography notes as well as the musical score. This in tribute to Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, albeit with completely different stage directions. Rather than merely blowing out candles, the orchestra walked on stage one by one, positioned themselves, started playing, about mid-way through moved to different places on the podium and at one point started scurrying back (intentionally loudly) to their original positions. The music itself was vivid; I imagined the two violin soloists were in charge of the orchestra and attempting to keep everything together, but the other musicians were mutinous and tried to get away. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra obviously greatly enjoyed this piece, as did the audience, judging by the laughs and giggles.

Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 9 may incite some giggles at first glance, but underneath is something which is no laughing matter. Having seen this piece live quite a few times, I have found that although most orchestras are able to capture this double layer, sometimes the performance can come across as perfunctory. Not so with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and this seemed to me to be largely because of Heras-Casado and his conducting techniques. Like the Classical Symphony, the orchestra was on point as far as beat and tempo were concerned, not needing much guidance there. But through his movements and enthusiasm, it became the most dynamic performance of Shostakovich’s Ninth that I have seen. The dance-sections in the symphony became even more deranged, but the serious undercurrent of the work was enhanced as well. The softer tones, especially in the string sections, were moving and subtle, yet the woodwinds were able to capture the maniacal nature of the work fantastically.