Concert Reviews: Messiaen in Manchester & Mahler in London

Two contrasting concerts in September highlight some the problems of the classical scene. Jurowski's lacklustre Mahler 7 was lauded by a packed but inattentive Festival Hall audience, whereas a rapt, but two thirds full Bridgewater Hall celebrated the amazing Turangalîla under Juanjo Mena.
The Manchester concert comprised two works - John Fould's mystical "Three Mantras" born out of the remnants of an unfinished and unsalvageable opera followed by Messiaen's first foray into the grand orchestral showpiece the ten movement Turangalîla.  My first acquaintance with Three Mantras was in 2004 when Sakari Oramo played it in Birmingham - the frenetic first movement and wistful second struck me as showboating and cribbing and I set aside the piece as an attempt to outdo Holst's Planets Suite and Debussy's Nocturnes in two movements.  To be frank my assessment is still intact - though I did become more engaged in the final Mantra which has more power in the concert hall than I expected - it’s a deal more visceral than it's siblings too.  My main excitement was to hear and see such a piece tackled in the flesh by an orchestra which I believe is better than the one Oramo had at his disposal.  Incidentally, the BBC Concert Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth which gave Three Mantras it's Proms premiere in 1998 - perhaps not some much of a surprise since Fould's main reputation was for light music.  In another bit of advantageous timing, the BBC Phil had given the whole programme a run out in Prom 38.  Both the RAH and BWH performances had the women's voices of the London Symphony Chorus in the second movement - they were very good.  What struck me in the BWH is the sheer enormity of Fould's orchestral ambition.  It seldom lives up to the scale in terms of content.  Though there is much that is interesting about Fould's compositions, for my money it lacks the compositional depth of Holst's Planets or Vaughan Williams Job for example - especially the emotion aspect.  It's not without merit, the local detail of quarter tones, sliding harmonies and the like make for an absorbing study.  The whole is simple at a scale which does no more than entertain by weight of forces.  The BBC Phil brass made light work of the composers heavy demands, and the huge string body burst through a sound picture dominated by vast percussion resources. They left me impressed by their playing but no more an advocate of Fould's orchestral music than his light music.

The Turangalîla Symphony is something which grows on me now each time I listen - it's intricacies open up and, with greater familiarity, it's spiritual quality is suddenly accessible too.  Helped by two great live performances heard on the radio (Salonen & Vassily Petrenko) since I had my first attempt at writing about the work in my Spring Symphoniesseries of blogs here, my admiration has grown for the French composer's unique grasp of the scale of the possible.  

Juanjo Mena has recorded the work with the Bergan Philharmonic and in that recording Steven Osborne makes an astonishing contribution to the sound picture.  In concert he attacks the keyboard with a cobra like precision.  The row of piano students in front of us at the BWH leapt - collectively - out of their seats at times.  He's incendiary in this work.  Valérie Hartmann-Claverie was the other soloist on Ondes Martinet.  It requires a vast orchestra and some fantastic effects only became clear to me in this live environment.  I heard it's indebtedness to Stravinsky and every now and then Richard Strauss.  It makes - thanks to the Ondes so extraordinary noises and has a trance like pulse and mediative momentum.  At the end it is very, very loud and very climatic in every sense.  This is music direct to the most ancient parts of the human brain to stir the spirit, the loins and shake the chest cavity.

These columns have resounded before with plaudits for the BBC Philharmonic - we are very lucky to have three great orchestras in Manchester, but the BBC Philharmonic is the one for this work I think.  Juanjo Mena guided them through with a little less dancing on the podium (until the last movement) and the audience visibly perked up at the fifth movement "Joie du Sang des Étoiles (Joy of the Blood of the Stars)" - latching onto their familiarity.  Students got in to this concert for £3 and the hall was half students and half the BWH faithful, it perhaps shouldn't be surprising that this Prom repeat was not well attended by a faithful who prefer their Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert.  That said the marathon was superbly observed by the audience and the applause was generous - especially and deservedly for Osborne who sheds a new light on this work.

A few days later I went to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra play Mahler's Seventh Symphony - a work I know very well.  The conductor was Vladimir Jurowski in one of his first concerts of the Autumn season - he'd conducted the orchestra.  It was my first experience of Jurowski conducting in the flesh and my first experience of the work live, but not sadly my first experience of the Royal Festival Hall which must soon rank as the worst concert going venue there is.  Its notable that the atmosphere in the RFH is very different to the BWH - people don't seem to be there to listen to music.  Talking is a constant irritant - the elderly couple (one sporting hearing aids) next to me talked through the concert.  Words are muttered when anything slightly odd happens such as the appearance of players off the platform, people don't settle quickly and the temptation for some to whisper mid-movement is too great for some to consider how loud they whisper.  It is more of a problem than phones I think - the solution is obvious, an announcement portentously tells people to switch off their devices at the RFH - it could also tell them to button their lips!

The orchestral layout employed was interesting - double basses (10) to the left behind the 1st violins (16), then moving to the right celli, viola and 2nd violins.  The guitar and Mandolin were elevated and to the side of the woodwind (too far back for me). There were 7 percussionists at the back of the stage and one set of cow bells were in a high box to the right and over the stalls.  For those who haven't seen him, Jurowski has a dapper conducting style a bit like Toscanini but he doesn't move as much as Mena - it's neat and tidy and a teeny bit dull but I think he gets precisely what he wants from his orchestra.

As for the music it was described by the Guardian as immaculately played - it was certainly well played in all the right places but immaculate it wasn't.  The same critic tried to say it was work in process - a mature conductor like Jurowski shouldn't be trying things out on home ground.  

The first movement has unmistakeable start but from the off I was concerned about the phrasing which seemed to tail off.  The start is march-like but the movement itself which is long and varied too often became too martial, phrasing was terse and it had none of the grinding emotional power of Boulez reading on CD.  There have been times with the LPO under other conductors when one feels they are achieving good things but by the skin of their teeth - insufficient rehearsal is a problem for many orchestras in the UK and I'd wager it was a problem here with this huge work.  Not least because the orchestra had been playing Mahler 2 in Mexico less than a week before. The second movement, the first Nachtmusik and the third, Scherzo, were plain, with little flow and lumpy transitions. Not much of the night about either the first Nachtmusik or the second (the fourth movement) - both missed the intimacy Mahler's writing offers.  There was some lovely string playing throughout, but the woodwinds struggled and certainly didn't show of mutually responsive phrasing I hear in the Manchester orchestra.

The finale is a bit bewildering and yet full of subtlety for the conductor who looks for it - Sinopoli's recording gets to the detail, Jurowski was loud and two dimensional.  The coughing and talking in the audience said it all.  The brass blew up a storm and the woodwinds, has happens in most recordings just disappeared under the orations - how I long to hear what's written in the winds parts in this movement! So all in all a bit of a disappointment and I don't expect the London Symphony to do any better anytime soon.  So I'll look to Liverpool I think and hope that Petrenko brings the (finer) account he did in Oslo in 2014 over to the Philharmonic Hall.

The natural tendency is to tell people the music making is better in London but taken both as a musical experience and the experience of being an audience member, Manchester won hands down on this occasion. Put together the forthcoming concerts by the Halle, BBC Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and I think you would have a better year of music than at the Royal Festival Hall or the Barbican.


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