LSO, Alsop, Barbican Hall

Posted on December 6th, 2010

It was extraordinary but not especially surprising how Gustav Mahler’s presence could loom so large in a concert containing not one single note of his music. His pointless “retouching” of the Beethoven symphonies and wholesale repression of his wife Alma’s compositional talent were both marked by the same motives: a willful self-interest.

So there was, then, a certain poetic irony to be found in the fact that two women were the motivation for this rare airing of Alma Mahler’s work – Marin Alsop and her big-hearted soloist Sarah Connolly. This selection of Seven Lieder from a small surviving catalogue were orchestrated by Mahler specialists Colin and David Matthews from a sixth sense of how Alma’s own orchestrations might have sounded – a more exotic brew than her husband’s shot through with intimations of Wagner and Berg, the before and after in this great line of succession.

The songs themselves (settings of uncredited and somewhat variable contemporary poets) crested on melodic lines of abiding generosity and Sarah Connolly’s ever-evolving voice (so free and even now throughout her wide vocal spectrum) opened most impressively to them. The strangely inconclusive ending of “Laue Sommernacht” suggested an unsettling uncertainty that love would or could illuminate the darkness (Alma’s own doubts surfacing?); “Licht in der Nacht” brought echoes of Connolly’s rich and wary Brangäne; “In meines Vaters Garten” tapped into a Straussian effulgence liberating the top of the voice to find release in the concluding melisma of the final song – “Erntelied” – the first day of the rest of the poet’s life.

Whichever you look at it, Mahler’s retouching of the Beethoven symphonies was a pointless and self-serving exercise which has latterly become something of a gimmick in the constant bid to refresh performance practice. Adjustments to dynamics in the balance of wind versus strings is a given for any conductor preparing and performing this music (as is the issue of wind doublings) and incidents of rescoring in the 7th Symphony where, for instance, Mahler switches horns to trumpets or doubles horns with trumpets add nothing to, indeed detract from, the sonic originality of the music. What ultimately makes the difference is the performance and this one from Alsop and the LSO was heavyweight and somewhat generalised in tone and texture, less buoyant, more earthily foot-stomping in rhythm, and ultimately – for all the finale’s piston-pumping excitement – rather coarse.

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