Child-like visions of wonder and excitement : a potentially brilliant concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with Ilan Volkov. Hans Abrahamsen's Left, Alone was the big draw, the premiere of a major work by an extremely significant composer, noted for his inventiveness and individuality. Left, Alone is a return to Abrahamsen's creative roots, far more characteristic of his style than Let me Tell You, which may be his Valse Triste, popular but not typical of his music. I hope he gets paid better than Sibelius did. Abrahamsen isn't the sort of composer you associate with smash hits. He's hardly ever written for voice. He doesn't need to. "Music is pictures of music", he once said. "That is a strong underlying element in my world of ideas when I compose - as is the fictional aspect that one moves around in an imaginary space of music. What one hears is pictures - basically, music is already there."
Abrahamsen's music listens, as a child listens, with purity and wonder. It's alert to the kind of quiet detail that gets missed in a world of white noise and bluster. A child doesn't need to prove anything to anyone. He or she can marvel, without precondition. One of my friends hated Abrahamsen's Schnee (2007) because it "feels like watching snow fall", but for me that's precisely what I love about Abrahamsen. Buddhists believe that the path to wisdom lies in divesting oneself of Self and the need to control. Abrahamsen's music examines sounds from different angles and, importantly, through silence, the antithesis of mental muzak
In Abrahamnsen's Left, Alone the concept "the sound of one hand clapping" is uniquely realized. Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand was written for Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right hand in war. Perhaps it carries the memory of a lost limb, as often happens to amputees. Abrahamsen's piece feels, however, like an exploration of something entirely imagined. Left, Alone moves through a series of six vistas, dark rumblings on the lower keys to bright outbursts in the orchestra. Single notes on percussion blocks tempt the piano forth. At first the piano sounds tentative, as if exploring space. A surge of strings from the orchestra, then a long passage of semi-silence. In fact there are several, passages of semi-silence, each one different, so you have to pay attention. Eventually the piano finds its voice, stabbing exuberantly at the keys, the whole orchestra animated in support. Having thus found itself, the piano can return to quietude. Single notes are played, repeatedly. A huge arc of sound from the orchestra, a frenzy of sparkling notes: piano, percussion, winds and strings together. The pace intensifies, bubbling along cheerfully. Not having a right hand is not funny, but the protagonist triumphs, nonetheless. Alexandre Tharaud was the soloist. Preceding Left, Alone was Abrahamsen's orchestration of Debussy Childrens Corner. The connections are clear: six vignettes unified by playful imagination.
In theory, this sense of childlike wonder should have animated Mahler's Symphony no 4, but for me, it largely fell flat. Volkov and the CBSO were brilliant in the first part of the programme, playing with vivacious good spirits. Maybe they'd enjoyed themselves too much. Volkov's métier is new music, and the CBSO relish adventure. They've done Mahler 4 often enough that they can probably coast through and usually (not always) still sound good. There were problems with the brass, and the timpani felt unusually heavy handed, as if they were playing a military march, which is fine in Mahler but not in Mahler 4. Volkov says "only when you play the whole piece through the last movement makes sense, dynamically and musically". We can't put much store in a soundbite like that, but it did have a bearing on this performance.
The final movement refers to the brightness of heaven, and happiness so dazzling that even St Ursula, the warrior, bursts out laughing while her murdered acolytes dance. It is by no means a "cheerful" symphony because the child singing is dead. The voice sounds vulnerable, but in Heaven, it cannot be hurt. Unlike the child in Das irdisches Leben it will not be suppressed. The dead kid is full of wonder because it's experienced a miracle. The sleigh bells in the first movement are there for a purpose. Sleighs were a mode of transport in difficult conditions, pulled along by the physical strength of horses. Hence the need for tightness of ensemble and vigorous energy. Mahler's first movements aren't usually overtures summarizing what is to come, but the first stage in a journey. Mahler's markings Bedächtig. Nicht eilen and In gemächlicher bewungen. Ohne hast don't in themselves mean slowness but more a kind of transition from the "life" of the first movement to the afterlife of the finale. If the music lingers, it's to suggest a reluctance to leave a happy past. In some ways, Mahler is saying goodbye to his Wunderhorn years and moving on. There are many ways to interpret this symphony but it does need a structured point of view.