Miracle of Mahler free from myth

Mahler/LSO/Rattle | Barbican, London Jennifer Larmore | Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

For Gustav Mahler, death was a lifelong obsession. Even his first symphony (started when he was barely 24) shows the sly, seductive beckoning of the Grim Reaper. But death is more present in his ninth symphony than in any of his other works. Fear, grief and rage dominate, particularly in the grotesque sarcasm of the second and third movements - a hate-letter to the Austrian bourgeoisie. Moments of optimism are brief and elusive.

For Gustav Mahler, death was a lifelong obsession. Even his first symphony (started when he was barely 24) shows the sly, seductive beckoning of the Grim Reaper. But death is more present in his ninth symphony than in any of his other works. Fear, grief and rage dominate, particularly in the grotesque sarcasm of the second and third movements - a hate-letter to the Austrian bourgeoisie. Moments of optimism are brief and elusive.

The moods of the ninth symphony are clear from Mahler's letters; he believed it would be his final symphony, his four-year-old daughter, Maria, had died and he had been diagnosed with a fatal heart condition. But the result of rifling through his personal history has been a tradition of plushly maudlin interpretations; the memorialisation of Mahler. Our image of his music is so clouded by stuck-on layers of saccharine sentimentality that it takes a brave conductor to reveal the clarity of his writing. And this is precisely what Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra managed to achieve in their performance at the Barbican; a lean, lucid exploration of thematic shifts that was all the more moving for its lack of sentimentality.

This was an extraordinary concert to watch; the bows of the vast orchestral forces moving like a corn-field in the wind as the music breathed and stirred. And it was a very modern account (in the sense of getting back to the original score) and the first time I have heard this music as truly dramatic rather than cinematic. Traditionalists may scoff at this, but I doubt that an interpretation like this would have been possible without the last 30 years' explorations into authentic performance practice.

Of course the sound of the LSO is ideal for Mahler. They have probably the most refined, concentrated tone in the country. They can cut back to the very quick of a chord with tuning that is so acutely coloured as to hint at uneven temperament. They can also fill out their sound to a devastating richness - as was shown in the out-Wagnering Wagner layered crescendi of the first and last movements. And Mahler, a conductor himself, wrote conductor's music - a gift to an artist like Rattle, who has a unique ability to balance the emotional arc of a piece with intellectual precision. The expressionistic unravelling of the music's dense cloth in the final movement had an unearthly luminosity. It was a symphony in grey - by which I don't mean a John Major dullness - a grey that had the shifting qualities and weight of light, shadow, silk, steel and stone. A miracle.

Jennifer Larmore's recital at the Wigmore Hall was by contrast pleasingly old fashioned. It started in the early 17th century, went through to the present, employed four different languages, two-and-a-half octaves plus, and fulfilled the correct quota of coloratura and legato. This kind of party-piece parade is exactly the kind of thing that would have gained top marks in a Royal College of Music degree recital in the 1950s - though I suspect even 1950s adjudicators might have balked at the number of winsome encore pieces in the second half.

Larmore's dark, husky, vibrant, thrilling mezzo is a big, wild, glossy beast that she has managed to tame through a pretty impressive technique. Just. Hearing her manoeuvre this extraordinary sound through the rapid-fire roulades of high-speed Rossini was like watching someone feed a lion with a teaspoon - exciting but unnerving. But for someone with a lucrative facility for coloratura she is most convincing when simply telling a story. Weill's Je ne t'aime pas was electrifying (think Piaf's performance style with Berganza's voice) and from the way she sang that song, Larmore has either had a major heartache herself or is the best actress I've seen. So when she has this dramatic power at her disposal, and the highly sophisticated Wigmorephiles as a captive audience, you have to wonder why she bothers trotting out the crowd-pleasing novelties.

For such a powerful singer, Antoine Palloc was an odd choice of pianist. He has a neat flair but his touch was uneven and he seemed unhappy in most of the idioms except the tricksy splashes of the final piece - Jake Heggie's outrageous rip-off of two songs by Ned Rorem ( Alleluia and The Serpent). It was a queasy moment, this archly comic song about an infant god tidying away his toys, and much hammed up by both performers. But the Weill still rang in my ears so I skipped the first (real) encore - Carmen? Puhleese! - and stepped into a taxi just as they launched into that dire song about wanting to be a diva. Too coy for me, my dear.

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