MUSIC / Storming the gates of Heaven: LSO Mahler Festival - Barbican

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Was it, I wonder, by thematic design that the premiere of John Tavener's The Myrrh Bearer shared an evening with Mahler at the Barbican on Sunday? Certainly the big drum's stark rhetoric recalled the fireman's funeral in Mahler's 10th Symphony, while the solo viola's dying cadences bore an unmistakable resemblance to a key passage in the same work's first movement. Yuri Bashmet's cantorial exposition of the solo line pleaded meaningfully against the chorus's bold pronouncements - a candid, searingly expressive commentary that rose higher in pitch the further it ventured towards the work's anguished core, trilling wildly at the very edge of the fingerboard before working back towards an uneasy peace. The consolatory words 'Kyrie eleison', inserted at various key points, invariably signalled a further rise in tension.

'The viola solo represents Mary Magdalen,' writes Tavener, 'as the cello solo represented the Mother of God in The Protecting Veil. This is where the resemblance between the two pieces ends.' Too true] There's little in the Veil that approximates The Myrrh Bearer's uncompromising directness, its startling sense of biblical contemporaneity. No wonder the composer mounted the stage to congratulate Bashmet, Stephen Westrop (the conductor) and their LSO collaborators.

The first of numerous scene changes occurred as Tavener's ritual line-up (full chorus and weighty percussion) gave way to the domesticity of Schubert's 'The Shepherd on the Rock'. Here the excellent Renee Fleming smiled whenever clarinettist Nicholas Rodwell echoed her mellifluous phrases, and Michael Tilson Thomas supported both with blandly effectual piano playing.

Bashmet and the orchestra reconvened for The Viola in My Life IV. Feldman's supple solo line is bedded in jewels and silk; it's an exquisitely tooled score, where every tiny detail bears Webernian significance. Telling moments are plentiful, and yet the work's calming effect was such that the girl sitting next to me drifted into sleep, quite unprepared for Feldman's closing trump card: a violent piano chord followed by a vibrant sting from the soloist.

Once back to reality, and the far side of a much-needed interval, Mahler returned, fully manifest this time, jogging to the sleigh-bells of his Fourth Symphony. Once again, Tilson Thomas exhibited some notably individual Mahlerian credentials and the LSO responded to a man. The leader Alexander Barantschik arrived on stage with two violins, one for his usual task to hand, the other - a superior instrument, presumably - for his prominent solo work in the second movement.

Here Tilson Thomas effected a fairly emphatic tread, at once cynical and sinister. A fairly animated first movement witnessed the occasional expressive mannerism, while the slow movement followed a cool, clean path through wide vicissitudes of fantasy; utterly still at first, then flying off like children at a fairground before storming the gates of Heaven for some of Mahler's most breath-taking modulations. Renee Fleming had joined the orchestra at the start of the movement in anticipation of Mahler's closing song, 'Life in Heaven', with its sleigh-bells and light-hearted biblical allusions. She sang like an angel - or, should I say, like a heavenly Myrrh Bearer.

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