Alma Mahler is best known today as a problem. Scholars of her husband, Gustav, speak of the “Alma Problem” when lamenting how its namesake systematically falsified or deleted the majority of correspondence between the pair, thus rendering unreliable these potentially revealing sources of information. Mahler realised she would be judged by posterity – her antisemitism and infidelities are well-attested – and wished to be portrayed more favourably than the unedited sources would have allowed.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste © Felix Broede
Jukka-Pekka Saraste
© Felix Broede

Less realised is that Mahler was, however briefly, a composer. Sadly, at the insistence of her then-fiancé, Alma agreed to stop composing. This petty, misogynistic stifling of her creativity means that Mahler is scarcely recognised for her music, which consists of 17 settings of works by contemporary German poets that were published in two collections in 1911 and 1915.

Mezzosoprano Lilli Paasikivi and the Oslo Philharmonic, led by Jukka-Pekka Saraste, performed an arrangement of five of these songs in a concert that opened with the Adagio from Gustav Mahler’s unfinished Symphony no. 10, the manuscript of which specifies that Alma was an inspiration. This programming offered a rare chance to engage with the couple and their relationship through their music.

Despite the small orchestration, Paasikivi was obscured at the ends of her phrases through Die stille Stadt, but her full and throaty voice was commanding and emotive by the fourth song, Ansturm. Over flitting and flourishing strings, she beseeched her listener to abate his anger at her improper desires. The ending of Licht in der Nacht was poignant. The singer implores her heart to sleep, since it will hear no further sound now the light has gone out. Shifting between major and minor, melancholic cor anglais and sighing strings gave way to two slow pizzicato thuds in the solo double bass: a death knell for sound; two final heartbeats.

Alma’s songs deserve attention. Through them, we can explore another side to a woman fetishised as a femme fatale, too often assessed on her reputation as a seductress of Vienna’s cultural glitterati than as a person in her own right. She was composing at a time when this was viewed as inconceivable for someone of her gender. Her output was modest, but the music is a light in the night.

The musical and emotional conflicts evident in Alma’s songs were less present in the rendition of her husband’s Adagio from Symphony no. 10. This was unfortunate, as the music isn’t exactly understated in its contrasts: glass-shattering dissonances juxtaposed with Romantic sweetness. There were good things: the simple, searching viola melody that opens the piece; and the ominous growlings in the lower brass suggestive of the discord, in both society and music, that would arrive after Mahler’s death. The first violins are up in the stratosphere for much of this long movement, but the note placement was sometimes inaccurate, detracting from the stylistic contrasts in the music.

This excellent programming was somewhat undermined by an inconsistent performance. I was nevertheless convinced that despite (or indeed because of) their imperfect characteristics and behaviour, Alma and Gustav were people like all of us, trying to make sense of the past while getting to grips with the future. They may never have been united as a couple, but their music connects them in a way that words are unable to.

Janáček’s monumental Glagolitic Mass is not without its contrasts, either – take the composer’s wish to create a Slavic alternative of the Catholic mass, setting the Latin Eucharist to jaunty music that quotes Moravian folk melodies; or the contrast between Janáček’s atheism and the ecstatic affirmation of the Veruju (Creed). This is not a work to be approached timidly. Emboldened by the presence of the Oslo Philharmonic Choir and organist Thomas Trotter, the orchestra played with aplomb right from the celebratory brass fanfare that opens the Urod (Introitus).  

Measha Brueggergosman shone in the soprano role, bright and upbeat in the Gospodi pomiluy (Kyrie), and a jubilant prophetess in the Slava (Gloria). Crafting beautiful phrases and radiating confidence and religious fervour throughout, she seemed unfazed by the challenging Old Church Slavonic text; unlike Mati Turi, whose reedy tenor was unsure in high declamatory moments during the Veruju, when he would barely look up from his score.

Due partly to the poor acoustics of the hall, the choir was lost in the first half of the mass, but better enunciation came to the rescue in time for the biting Veruju. Trotter impressed in the Varihany (Postludium), a grand showcase of organ virtuosity. The whirling moto perpetuo was hurled around all registers, shrieking and thundering, before ground to an earth-shattering halt that shook the foundations of the hall. Brass snatched the pulsating melody and blazed in the Intrada (Exodus), with screaming strings in frantically high registers and triumphant percussion bringing the piece to a stonking conclusion.