Friday, 16 February 2018

Wunderhorn-haunted Mahler 5 - Jakub Hrůša, Philharmonia

Jakub Hrůša (photo Pavel Heinz, for IMG)

Many have wondered, "How Bohemian was Gustav Mahler?". Mahler Symphony no 5 with Jakub Hrůša and the Philharmonia Orchestra paired with Beethoven Piano Concerto No 1 in C, op 15, with soloist Piotr Anderszewski at the Royal Festival Hall, London, might shed some light. Mahler grew up in German-speaking communities in what is now Bohemia/Moravia, so the question is valid.  Though German speakers dominated society in those times, and Bohemian received less deference, as a bright, sensitive child Mahler might have absorbed the sounds around him.  Although Mahler's Fifth Symphony is not a Wunderhorn symphony, it still carries the vigorous vernacular of the folk traditions captured in Brentano and Arnim's volume Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Hrůša brought out the robust spirit that animates the symphony. Far from being neurotic, this is a symphony that celebrates life in its variety. It begins with a Trauermarsch, a funeral march, in measured steps.  Growing up in a garrison town, Mahler would often have seen soldiers in drill formation. Hence the marking "wie ein Konduct".  Thus the baleful trumpet call, followed by trombones and tuba, and the steady pace. But almost immediately, something extra happened.  The fingerings on the basses brought out the "wood" in their instruments. Hollow sounds and very spooky, evoking the sound of skeletons marching through town in Revelge, the dead resurrected in macabre afterlife.  The high winds sounded like cries of anguish. It is also significant that Mahler experienced a dangerous illness before the completion of Symphony no 5.  He, too, had beaten death and could laugh in its face.  Hrůša's approach is interpretively valid, making connections between this symphony and so much else in Mahler,  even to the quirky, dark humour of Symphony no 7.  A chilling last chord, to press the point.

This symphony was first performed with the Rückert song Um Mitternacht. In the silence of the night the poet hears his heart and realizes its beat separates life from death.The angular phrasing with which the second movement begins, underlined by "heartbeats"of the timpani, suggested the pulse of a body.  The trumpet plays a dual role. It propels forward thrust yet also stands for a single player, and individual in a larger group. A humble soldier, the human face of an army : part of the Wunderhorn ethos. In the fanfare and storm-tossed passages that follow, the trumpet leads on.  Here, an exhilaration reminiscent of Mahler's Symphony no 1. But an "individual" emerges again in the violin, lyrical but distinctive.  The third movement moves from Scherzo to stillness. There are interlocking dialogues, between trumpet and horn, between horn and flute, solo violin and strings. This dynamic suggests variety : the proliferation of different stories in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, perhaps, but also in life itself.  Now the violin part dominates, leading into more mysterious territory. Winds call, and brass. Dense textures and shadows. The violins sang freely contrasting with angular brass, wooden percussion beating tension.  Are we hearing the sounds of the night, or the sounds in a dense forest? At moments, I felt as though the spirit of the Cunning Little Vixen had infused the symphony, enhancing it with the fertility and freedom which the Vixen symbolizes. 

Perhaps the Vixen lingered, too, in the Adagietto, with its natural, unforced tenderness.  The Vixen is a feminine presence, and "feminine" themes occur quite often in Mahler.  Hrůša placed the celli between the first and second violins and violas, so an almost imperceptible tremble added to the fragility of the moment.  As so often in Mahler, good times don't last, though as in Nature, new life replaces old.  Thus the vernal freshness with which the Rondo-Finale began, developed with warmth, creating the spacious, summery freedom we encounter so often in Mahler.  Here, the rustling strings and rumbling percussion evoked a sense of dense, healthy undergrowth. It's not for nothing that so much Central European mythology springs from an aesthetic in which the forest acts as symbol for the psyche.  With this firm foundation, the brass can call heavenwards. Mahler can conclude with vibrant flourish. The journey from death to life once again traversed, vigour refreshed and revived.  

Hrůša's approach to Mahler is inspired and perceptive. It's not often that structural connections are so well understood,and performance so earthy and vital.  This concert began with Beethoven  Piano Concerto no 1 op 15 with Piotr Anderszewski, well performed but with no particular relation to Mahler 5.  Beethoven Piano Concerto no 2 will be heard with Mahler Symphony no 1 on April 12th when Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia with David Fray as soloist. Will, the connections reveal themselves then ?  .

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