Thursday, 5 June 2014

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Mahler Symphony no 1

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos is to retire, with immediate effect. "After meeting with my doctors I have come to the following conclusion: I have to recognize publicly that I have cancer and that in this state of health and with deep sorrow I am not able to conduct at my standards and the moment to quit professional matters has come.” What a dignified and honest statement. That is the measure of a man, I think. I'm greatly moved.

Although Frühbeck de Burgos was a regular fixture in London in the late 60's early 70's, in later years his appearances here were relatively rare. I came to "know" him from his recordings with the "New Philharmonia" as it was called then. His recording of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1995) is another milestone. Wolfgang Brendel's Hans Sachs is uncommonly wise and warm - a lot like I imagine the conductor himself is. Frühbeck de Burgos didn't record Mahler, but his way with the composer was highly regarded. He was awarded the Gold Medal of the International Gustav Mahler Society in 1996, when such things meant a lot. So when he returned to London after a long hiatus to conduct Mahler Symphony no 1, my friends and I were there.

In this symphony Mahler sets out his calling card, so to speak, so the way a conductor approaches it shows how deeply he's absorbed the composer's idiom. There are brash, vulgar Mahler 1's, perfectly valid in some ways, if you think of Mahler as a wild young man punching his way Titan-like into the world.  Then there are Mahler 1's conducted like Frühbeck de Burgos, where you feel you're hearing  a wise older man looking back fondly on a tempestuous young man's audacious dreams, knowing how the composer will grow and mature.

"This performance placed the First Symphony firmly in the context of Mahler’s early influences", I wrote then. "The imagery of dark, nocturnal forests is central to Germanic folklore, and to the sensibility of the Romantic period. It’s natural, then, that Mahler, so aware of the position of music in connection with other arts, would choose to start the first movement with what are effectively “forest murmurs”, evoking panoply of images pregnant with meaning for his time. Indeed, Siegfried was a kind of “Titan” individual who, like Mahler, had to make his own way in the world. Tentatively, the clarinet and flute break through the murmurs: the clarinet’s kuckuck a direct reference to the cuckoo heralding Spring who will appear in other songs and symphonies. The music then wells up to an unequivocally lyrical transposition of Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld. Frühbeck de Burgos beamed with happiness, for this is exhilaratingly happy music, especially when separate from the other, darker songs in the cycle. It is, after all, about an idealised “Schöne Welt”. At the crescendo, the whole orchestra seems to explode with enthusiasm, horns and big brass in full fanfare, but Frühbeck de Burgos keeps the textures clear and distinct. It is exciting because it is so breathtakingly pure."
" In the second movement, the references to Ländler and folk dance are emphasized. Frühbeck de Burgos had the orchestra play the swaying, swaggering theme with panache, the lovely clarinet embellishments played with instruments held high. The heady, swirling figures in the theme later used in the Second Symphony and Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt came across confidently, for this conductor understands Mahler’s quirky sense of humour, which is never far from the surface. It’s not simply that this conductor’s personal geniality brings out the humour: Mahler’s sense of the ludicrous is far more deeply ingrained in his work than is often appreciated. Hence the “funeral march” in the third movement, inspired by a picture in which animals escort a hunter in his cortège This image frightened the composer when he was a child, for it addresses the idea of transience, a world overturned, and a reversal of order. It’s a theme later to be explored in the Dionysian deconstruction in the Third Symphony. In the First Symphony, though, it’s still relatively undeveloped. A well modulated roll of the massed kettledrums announces a colder mood. The slow march here was supported by a surprisingly gentle clash of cymbals, whose reverberations seemed to float on, highlighted by two bursts of sound from the double basses, a simple but telling detail. Then the orchestra reignites in full crescendo. In contrast with the rounded, warm lyricism that had gone before, the “inferno” sequence was wildly angular, trombones, trumpets and tuba in full fanfare. Yet as the conductor raised his hand, in an instant the powerful surge subsided into a recapitulation of the balmier “summer” theme.

"Frühbeck de Burgos uses volume to accentuate the colours and contrasts in the score: it works well because this orchestra is so good they respond immediately, as one. There’s no room for muddy playing in this approach. Thus the final movement really was Stürmisch bewegt, a tsunami of sound relentlessly, powerfully surging forward. It was both beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Yet at no point did the individual strands get lost in the tumult. Highly disciplined and accurate musicianship kept the colours clear and vibrant. Amazingly, the horns sounded almost like bells tolling, the bigger brass providing a deeper undercurrent. Sudden bursts of colour, such as from the flute and clarinet, lit up the curtain of sound created by the rumbling roll of percussion and the extremely well balanced strings. And so this symphony ended in a truly jubilant mood. Just as there were quotes from Lieder to provide subconscious commentary, the quotes now were from Handel “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and he shall reign forever and ever”. It is, unmistakably, a triumphant ending, bursting with hope, life and vitality. Frühbeck de Burgos has the horns stand up to play in a splendidly theatrical gesture, which fits the exuberant spirit of this music. A complete Mahler cycle tracing the composer’s development, symphony to symphony, from this conductor and an orchestra of this standard would be a wonder to behold."

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