Classical Cleveland Orchestra Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Tuesday 03 September 1996
Orchestral players, even those of the stellar standard at Cleveland, are human beings, not robots; and this symphony is notoriously stuffed with orchestral part-writing that's both treacherous in its own right and nerve-rackingly exposed. Yes, there were a good few individual mistakes in Thursday's performance. And frankly, my dears, I don't give a damn. Who cares about a blemish or two with music-making of this class? I can't remember a performance of this work where so much of the music itself was able to speak so truly and movingly, and where so little extraneous glitz was allowed to get in the way.
Why are Mahler performances so often little more than noisy, hollow and (let's be honest) unmusical experiences? Perhaps because the late Leonard Bernstein's way with Mahler's music - maximum emphasis on fraught and driven intensity - has become accepted as the way to do it. Well, that worked for an artist of Bernstein's genius, but it works for precious few others.
Meanwhile Christoph von Dohnnyi's approach, besides being a marvellous antidote to the aural sand-blasting that generally passes for Mahler conducting, also opened up some vivid musical perspectives on the symphony itself.
Glossy sound-colours don't interest Dohnnyi. The sonorities he conjures from this orchestra are relatively soft-grained, with an equable range of tempi and dynamics to match. The result was a far stronger sense than usual of the Viennese musings behind the Landler-like charm of the symphony's big central scherzo and the droll Haydn-isms of the finale. The Adagietto, instead of wallowing in schmaltz as it usually ends up doing, here sang with the simple loveliness of a Schubert song. There was a downside: the shuddering orchestral convulsion following the work's opening trumpet call, for instance, seemed underpowered, and the scherzo's horn-call interludes missed the forest-echoing magic that they should have. But on the whole the music's journey from tragedy to sunlight was traced by conductor and orchestra alike with a beautifully sure touch.
Mahler's Fifth Symphony presents the problem of what to programme beforehand. A Mozart concerto, for instance, ought to be ideal but somehow isn't - the stylistic chasm is just too wide. Dohnnyi opted for a curiosity in the shape of Beethoven's F minor String Quartet, Op 95, arranged by Mahler for string orchestra. As a terse and introverted upbeat to the symphony, it worked rather well, even if some of the original quartet-writing sounded - in this strange collective guise - a shade fiddly in the wrong sense.
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