Sunday, May 29, 2022
Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Guest Reviewer, David Gutman
Vasily Petrenko the Mahlerian is familiar to Liverpudlians. He conducted a Mahler series with the RLPO in 2010-11 and grander plans for 2020 were meant to climax with an Eighth summoning both that orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic to the Royal Albert Hall. The pandemic intervened and we are left with one-off London performances straddling this season and the next, the present programme among them.
Petrenko’s Elgar at least is a known quantity; his commercial recording of Sea Pictures features the same, sympathetic soloist. The songs have a slightly peculiar reception history, possibly not assisted by colourful reports of Dame Clara Butt’s attire at the Norwich Festival premiere of October 1899: she came on dressed as a mermaid. Is it because the texts are in English that detractors discern a lack of profundity that would not have worried Mahler (or Berg come to that)? Or is it, rather, some deficiency in the invention? The reality of oblivion lurks beneath some of the marine imagery and all but ‘The Swimmer’ were programmed (twice) by Mahler himself during his conducting stint in New York. More might have been made of this had Petrenko chosen to deliver one of his pre-concert homilies. Even in 1911 critics were divided, one welcoming the songs as “dreamy tone poems”, another pronouncing them “dull and uninspired”. The singer then was Louise Kirkby Lunn, doubtless another ‘real’ contralto. Nothing much to criticize in Kathryn Rudge’s contribution here, attentive to the meaning of the text if timbrally lighter than those celebrated exponents of the past. It was typical of Petrenko that the musical texture seemed more than usually translucent, never puddingy, phrasing sculpted with an expressive left-hand.
The Mahler proved more challenging. In a curious mix of the new and the old, the conductor favoured non-antiphonal violins and the movement order shunned by most younger conductors without restoring the third hammer-blow. Kirill and Vasily Petrenko (unrelated incidentally) have both taken up Elgar’s Second Symphony but when it comes to Mahler’s Sixth they do not agree about the proper sequencing of its middle movements. The dispute inspires strong opinions (Colin and David Matthews take opposing lines) and will doubtless continue for as long as the music is performed. Like Webern on the podium in the 1930s, Vasily made the Scherzo an immediate commentary on the first movement and the Andante an upbeat to the Finale, a double dose of negation. That said, it is clear that Mahler as conductor changed his mind about this and didn’t necessarily change it back as was once thought.
The results were radically fierce and hard-edged. Out for the most part went local colour, be it Bohemian, Jewish or Viennese. Instead Petrenko insisted on single-minded Shostakovich-like intensity, the dark mood maintained over the entire not-quite eighty minutes. Moments of repose felt provisional and perhaps slightly directionless, cowbells clunky and hollow-sounding as if by design. The first movement exposition (not quite spot-on first time round) acquired greater security and power in the repeat, the Alma theme kept on a tight leash as part of the symphonic discourse rather than an occasion for ebullience and sentimentality. Except for the lack of flexibility this was pretty much the goosestep of Bernstein rather than the slow march of Barbirolli. The Scherzo continued in much the same vein, Gemütlichkeit strictly rationed in the Trio.
Next a ‘slow movement’ reluctant to have much truck with illusory serenity. The Finale was predictably red in tooth and claw, anticipating the ‘Rondo-Burleske’ of the Ninth in its exhausting drive. Tempos overall were again not unlike Bernstein’s first, New York recording albeit with far less deployment of rubato. Idiomatic or not, the results were immensely impressive, the players straining every sinew to articulate significant motivic fragments with unaccustomed zeal. Whether intending to project a conceptualization of conflict (q.v. Britten’s War Requiem which the same team had performed only days previously) or a purely abstract structure, the conductor plainly wanted to sustain the silence at the end. Sadly, audiences no longer understand this. The brutal nihilism of the Symphony’s conclusion was followed almost immediately by energetic applause. A pause for reflection would have been nice!