S&H Concert review

  Prom 65: Mahler Symphony No. 7 Augusta Read Thomas Aurora, for piano and chamber orchestra Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (CT)

The last time I heard Daniel Barenboim conduct Mahler (the Fifth Symphony at the Proms a few years back) I recall being left strangely cold by the performance, this despite fine playing by the orchestra. As a result, I resolved (somewhat prematurely perhaps) that Barenboim was unlikely to acquire himself a long-standing reputation as a Mahlerian. This was a performance that went some way, though not all, to give me hope that I may have been somewhat rash in my earlier judgement.

The atmosphere of the opening movement was immediately captured, the almost ghostly sound of the euphonium floating wonderfully around the hall. My only reservation through the early course of this movement was a frustrating relaxation of the intensity at certain key moments, a point that troubled me later in the performance also, (recollections of my earlier Mahler Five experiences here). Yet there was so much to admire in the tremendous dynamic control and attention to detail of Mahler's astonishing scoring. The central hushed section, with its distant trumpet calls, was utterly compelling and there was certainly no sense of relaxation in the impressive closing bars. For much of the second movement ( Nachtmusik 1) I could only marvel at the magnificent sound of the orchestra, the delicacy of the woodwind in their wonderfully natural phrasing and the weight and width of the string tone, heavy when needed yet with a turn of lightness capable of adding so much textural contrast. One could sense that Barenboim and his players were right inside this movement. Likewise, the central Scherzo, marked quite literally Shattenhaft or "shadowy", waltzed in and out of its dark corners in an appropriately unnerving manner, entirely befitting Mahler's nightmarish vision. A delightful sense of poise at the beginning of the second Nachtmusik combined once again with fine playing from the woodwind (they excelled themselves all night) led us into a finale that blazed from the opening bars - what an opening statement from the trumpets and horns! The joyous relief of this movement was conveyed with great spirit and, for perhaps the first time, I felt that Barenboim displayed the cumulative energy that I had missed earlier in the performance. What a shame that the trumpets clipped a few notes too many in their upper register, something that was rather noticeable throughout the performance. The conclusion was tremendous and whilst I still have some reservations as to Barenboim's ability to weld and sustain a satisfying sense of structure in a work of this scale, so crucial to Mahler, there was a great deal to cherish in this performance.

The brief first half had been occupied by Augusta Read Thomas' Aurora, effectively a chamber concerto for piano and a deliberately Mozartian orchestra, skilfully directed from the keyboard by Barenboim. Thomas has been composer in residence with the Chicago since 1997 and Aurora was the result of a joint commission from the Chicago Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras, the central panel of three commissions all for piano and small orchestra the first of which, Sotto Voce by Wolfgang Rihm, was premiered in 1999. Cast in five continuous sections the piece showed a crystalline clarity of sound and invention in its finely realised textures. The result is not flamboyant, but very much personally conceived for Barenboim's mastery of the piano's sonority. "It's almost as if I'm asking him to caress the piano" Thomas is quoted as saying in the programme. The performance here showed an authority and confidence that I can not imagine being bettered.

Christopher Thomas.

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