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Views And Reviews: Schoeberg And Mahler

"Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht is astonishingly beautiful yet curiously amorphous music,'' wrote Paul Serotsky, reviewing a concert by the Orchestra of Opera North.

Kirklees Orchestral Concerts: Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht (1943 version), Mahler: Symphony No. 5.
Orchestra of Opera North, András Ligeti (conductor), Huddersfield Town Hall

This concert, at least, invested the Kirklees Concert season’s trite little slogan, “be alive” [sic] with some vestige of meaning. At the heart of the programmatic context of both works is the idea of “being alive” or, more specifically, “being in love”. Schoenberg’s blow-by-blow account of Dehmel’s poem made no bones about it, whilst even Mahler’s ostensibly absolute music at least partly concerns his current life and love.

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht is astonishingly beautiful yet curiously amorphous music. My hope, that András Ligeti’s Mahlerian credentials should make him a reliable guide, turned out to be entirely justified. Thoughout, his right hand maintained a virtually unbroken, rounded pulse* that shunned stagnation and pulled focus on the long view. Meanwhile, his other hand teased out the individual character of each phrase, and crafted climaxes climbing like rising sap, then dissolving into the radiance of blooming buds. Alright, maybe I’m waxing a bit poetic, but there was a pervasive strategic intent: intensifying Schoenberg’s sectional graduations helped to clarify the work’s form. For instance, early on Ligeti accentuated the astringent emotional pangs, widening the contrast with the shimmering serenity of the latter stages.

I have never heard the OON strings play better than they did here. Their tone was superbly silken, luxuriant in amplitude for the climaxes, softly spinning fine traceries of sound in the many intimate episodes, where the splendid soloists threaded the textures with admirable delicacy. As one who prefers the original sextet version I found this latter especially pleasurable, although I must admit that my viscera twisted in ecstasy at the good vibrations emanating from the six basses! You don’t often get a Verklärte Nacht as hypnotically lucid as this.

However, stunning starters tend to kick your expectations sky-high. So it was here. On another night, I would have been completely bowled over by this Mahler Fifth. So, it didn’t help that the very start seemed tentative, the first big outburst lacking oomph, and the cross-rhythm fraying. Yet, my grumbles add up to – First movement: tension-dissipating comma at summit of coda’s crescendo. Second movement: braying horns failed to cleave the heaving orchestra, one woefully undernourished tam-tam crash, coda short on trepidation. Third movement: leisurely ländler too quick. Fourth movement: none. Finale: awkward gear-changes circumscribe final appearance of “adagietto” theme. It’s not much, is it?

Ligeti wore his Mahlerian credentials right on the sleeve of that pulsing arm! That “oomph-lacking” outburst turned out to be deliberate – its recurrences were progressively more brutal. The funeral march was kept moving, some unexpected little catches emphasising the sobbing phrases. Colours were unusually pungent, with some notable woodwind contributions – throughout, Ligeti was careful to observe the required elevations of the bells of both horns and clarinets. I also observed that the drapes behind the horns had been bundled up: better the scaffolding be seen than the sound be damped!

In the second movement, Ligeti stormed into Mahler’s stürmisch bewegt, encouraging the tuba– if you’ll pardon my French – to fart alarmingly! That “cleavage” failure apart, the horns surmounted the elemental fury like Valkyries. Similarly, the somewhat mundane conclusion was at odds with the earlier desolation and nervousness, particularly as it followed a singularly seismic eruption topped by a “Messiaenic” tam-tam crash. Happily, the “chorale”, which surely symbolises the advent of Alma the Potential Redeemer, was handled to perfection.

Mahler, I believe, analogised himself in relation to the younger (and more attractive) Alma through the third movement’s juxtaposition of rustic ländler and elegant waltz. If so, then in spite of all his loving inflections, Ligeti muddled the tempi. Otherwise, it was succulent: harmonious horn, fetching oboe, velvety cellos – and it simply burst with happy energy.

I don’t go along with the “andante” view of the fourth movement, so I was perfectly content when Mahler’s sehr langsam took over eleven minutes! Yet, courtesy of Ligeti’s pulsing arm, which “transfigured” Mahler’s arching phrases into expansive sighs, it seemed all too brief.

Ligeti neatly balanced the finale’s need for speed against the need to negotiate the rippling streams of notes. Otherwise, acknowledging that it’s something of a showpiece, he rightly loosened the leash – everyone was having the time of their lives. The return of the chorale, now an affirmation rather than an aspiration, lifted eyebrows, then hair, and then the roof! To cap it all, amid the riotous rowdiness of the runaway coda came the rare pleasure of hearing every “ting” of that much underrated instrument, the triangle.

After its shaky start, the OON quickly pulled up its collective socks, then generally played its collective socks off. Although it isn’t – at least, not yet – it looked and felt like an orchestra with Mahler in its very blood. Hopefully, what it has learnt from Ligeti will stick, and Huddersfield audiences can look forward to still finer Mahler performances.


* This would have had Sir Adrian Boult beaming with appreciation! Michael Kennedy’s biography of Boult cites a R.C.M. conducting class in 1921, during which Boult said, “. . . you had no control at the change of time. Now, why was that? You stopped the stick between the beats. You see, your too definite beat stopped the ‘swing’. You had got to arm’s length and had left yourself nowhere to go . . . You’ve got to contend with the player who looks up between the beats.”


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