Norman Stinchcombe reviews Mozart and Mahler from the CBSO


CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

From the opening impressive ringing call-to-arms of Matthew Williams' trumpet to the closing notes of untrammelled joy in the rondo finale there was much to savour in this performance of Mahler's fifth symphony. Under Christoph König's crisp and incisive direction – his podium restraint reminiscent of his countryman Christoph von Dohnányi – there was energy and drive with the minimum of fuss. Occasionally the result sounded a mite too civilized and reined in but restraint and discipline brought compensations too, most notably in the Adagietto. Mahler's tempo indication is "Sehr langsam (Very slow)". I doubt if it would have been if he could have foreseen the late twentieth century trend for gross tempo inflation. The was a musical love letter to Mahler's wife Alma: a mere eight minutes when conducted by Mahler's close friends and confidants Mengelberg and Walter, more recently a slow dirge used at funerals and memorial ceremonies. After the strangely hesitating and suggestive dabs of colour from the harp, König let the music flow; deeply reflective, but not melancholy, always with an undertow of passion ready to surge to the surface. The mock rustic scherzo, alternately lumbering and rollicking, was a joy. The playing was uniformly fine, none more so than the horn section led by Elspeth Dutch – what a stirring sight they were, playing out full throttle, bells up.

Paul Lewis's performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27 K.595 matched König's cool, clear-eyed de-mythologizing view of Mahler's Adagietto. In his book on Mozart's piano concertos the marvellously-monikered Cuthbert Girdlestone called No. 27 "vesperal", a work of approaching night, an ominous tolling of the bell – Mozart as doomed proto-romantic Keatsian, "half in love with easeful death". While it was first performed in 1791 the year of his death, it was written years before and only squinting hindsight can make it a farewell-to-life. Lewis was all clarity and precision, pellucid and tender, but never morose, in the Larghetto. The finale's gaiety was uninhibited – Mozart used the theme in his hugely popular paean to Spring, 'Komm, lieber Mai' (Come, dear May) – with Lewis and the players lilting infectiously.

Norman Stinchcombe

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