Photo, Chris Christodoulou

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Royal Albert Hall, London

I’ll now never know, but my gut-feeling was that Sir Andrew Davis conducting Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (left unfinished at the composer’s death and made performable by Deryck Cooke – Davis’s choice of version from the several now available) would have been special indeed. Sadly he was indisposed, but how fortunate that Sakari Oramo was able to replace him and bring Mahler’s Seventh, also not one of his Symphonies that is overplayed.

Unchanged was the first half, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, his final completed work, given its premiere posthumously in 1936 by Louis Krasner, Hermann Scherchen conducting (coupled with Mahler Ten this was originally an ‘endgame’ Prom). Leila Josefowicz gave a reading of this work dedicated “to the memory of an angel”, Manon Gropius, daughter of Walter and Alma, dead aged eighteen, that was about quick-change emotions, confiding whispers and explosive attack, a scorching bow on her violin’s strings – the serene opening had been deceiving – and she was backed by a fully conversant Oramo and BBCSO as to her chameleon, totally immersed approach and they regarding their supporting complexities, details delineated, the introduction of a Bach chorale a moment of transcendence and acceptance, plangently developed to the Concerto’s ethereal conclusion. For an encore it had to be further Bach, a very expressive Largo from the C-major Sonata (BWV1005).

(With James Ehnes as soloist, Sir Andrew has recorded Berg’s Violin Concerto for Chandos, I wonder if Chandos had plans to record the Mahler.)

Mahler’s five-movement Seventh, music mostly of the night, found Oramo expansively traversing this great, complex and ambiguous Symphony, the first movement’s militaristic swagger, and mysterious romance growing to rapture, enjoying coherence and deliberation, yet also flexibility, initiated by the oars-in-water introduction, and a well-taken tenor horn solo by Peter Moore (Martin Owen led the French variety), with colours and dynamics vividly contrasted and savoured, the coda hard-won. The first ‘Nachtmusik’ movement was beguilingly detailed and pointed, interest sustained through a galaxy of incidents, picturesque and poetic, the second one a dusky serenade warmly wooing, guitar and mandolin in the mix to suggest that love is wafting in the gentle breeze, mostly languorous, some palpitations, with, in between, the macabre Scherzo flitting by, shadows and spectres, bizarre effects heightened, discombobulating. And to a timpani salvo as a wake-up call, the Finale, a bright new day, light out of darkness, and festivities galore, with Wagner, Schumann and Lehár as possible guests – teasing allusions – Oramo spiriting and nudging the music along to a resplendent cowbell-festooned conclusion.

With the Proms and Albert Hall connection I was reminded at times of the fantastic M7 that Pierre Boulez conducted with this Orchestra on September 12, 1977 (if not quite emulated in his later Cleveland/DG recording), Boulez also introducing a new (longer) version of his Rituel in memoriam Maderna. Like the Frenchman, Oramo led a Mahler Seven in which there was nothing ‘easy’ or glib. He has Mahler Three on August 19.