wed 23/07/2014

Mahler Cycle, Philharmonia, Maazel, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Mahler Cycle, Philharmonia, Maazel, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

The veteran conductor returns to Mahler for the start of a huge centenary cycle

Slow movement: With this concert Lorin Maazel conducted in Manchester for the first timeChris Lee

However, to begin at the beginning – the First Symphony in D major, first performed in 1889 in Budapest, with the composer conducting. There’s a lot to be said for giving Manchester its scoop (naturally, we don’t regard it as a dress rehearsal for the Royal Festival Hall performance tonight). In any case, Manchester had its big Mahler feast last year, when the Halle and the BBC Philharmonic joined forces to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth. Birth, death, any excuse for more Mahler. Yet Manchester audiences are clearly not satiated, judging by the turn out last night and the enthusiastic response to the Maazel/Philharmonia experience, with cheers, standing ovation and whistles of the complimentary sort. Amazingly, this was the maestro’s first ever appearance in the city – and the Philharmonia is a rare treat.

The symphony was first performed here not long after the composer died - by the Halle under the near-forgotten man of that orchestra’s history, the German conductor, Michael Balling, who bravely put it on the menu in 1913. Later, of course, Sir John Barbirolli made it his own and proved himself to be a great Mahlerian, despite his initial doubts. He was known to spare no pains in preparing to tackle Mahler, apparently taking up to two years over just one work. Maazel has probably had longer than that – he certainly needs no score. He has, after all, been here before, in the sense that he has recorded the complete cycle of Mahler symphonies with his old band, the Vienna Philharmonic. One wonders why he would want to go through it again. But they do say that once you’ve climbed Everest, you can’t wait to scale it again. And the Mahler cycle is familiar to the Philharmonia, too, notably under Sinopoli. “The symphony is a world,” Mahler famously told Sibelius. And so it is, from the first awakening of nature, magical and evocative, to the stormy finale recalling the theme of the opening bars. Full circle.

Few conductors have a better beat than Maazel, yet he is so economical in his movement – imperious, disdainful, detached almost. From the audience’s view he shows no passion and is a still figure in the middle of string players bowing for their lives, brass blowing their heads off, percussionists banging the drums and clashing the symbols for all their worth. From the start, birds sing, the cuckoo theme claims the nest, the flute twitters and creatures of the forest awake. In the Scherzo we are taken through the traditional Austrian folk dance, reflecting the spontaneity of peasant life, to the Viennese waltz, showing the contrasting organisation of genteel society. In the end, the peasants win out for Mahler.

The familiarity of the symphony’s tunes and themes enrich the pleasure. We have processions and marches and oom-pah bands, and the playing around with the children’s round, "Bruder Martin" or "Frère Jacques", in mock-solemnity. It’s all very emotional and moving and not without fun, although you wouldn’t know it watching Maazel. Still, he did get a memorable performance out of the Philharmonia. And that flaming finale, with the glittering horns standing like something out of the big-band era, as instructed by the composer, and even the violas letting go for once, was shuddering.

In addition to the 10 symphonies, Maazel is also taking in four major orchestral song cycles. By way of a 20-minute curtain raiser, although that hardly does it justice, we had Songs of a Wayfarer, sung by the American mezzo, Michelle DeYoung. She has quite a presence, well suited to the Wagnerian roles she has played at Bayreuth, the Met and La Scala. Songs of a Wayfarer are, of course, finely matched with the First Symphony, since the second of the four songs, Ging heut morgen ubers Feld (I went this morning across the field) forms the main theme of the first movement and, in Mahler’s encircling way is reprised in the fourth and final movement.

DeYoung sang beautifully and expressively, capturing in voice and face and body language the grief, joy and ultimate despair of love found and lost, as Mahler had himself experienced in his fated love affair with Johanna Richter. Maazel clearly has a rapport with DeYoung, but he did take the work oh-so-slowly. If you want a slow movement, he’s your man.

One wonders why he would want to go through it again. But they do say that once you’ve climbed Everest, you can’t wait to scale it again

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Comments

Maazel's Mahler 4 with the VPO has been unmatched for many years- the slow movement contains some playing of unimaginable beauty. The only recording that I think has come close to matching it is the recent disc from Ivan Fischer and the Budapest festiva Orchestra.
Indeed, Maazel has been here before - with this very orchestra. Can't pinpoint the date of the cycle, but I do remember a Mahler Sixth with lots of missed cues in the finale. But there are fine things in the recorded VPO series (especially the Ninth). On balance, though, probably had enough.

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