Blazingly relevant Mahler 1 – Salonen, Schoenberg Dutilleux

Prom 32, Best Prom of the Year so far, Esa- Pekka Salonen conducting Mahler,  Schoenberg and Dutilleux  with the Philharmonia Orchestra.  An exceptionally good performance, even by the high standards we’ve come to expect from this orchestra with a conductor who has stretched and developed them over the years. Superb playing, but also superb programming, typical of Salonen’s intellect.   Everyone does Mahler  Symphony no 1 these days but how many conductors would dare  present it in the context of Schoenberg A Survivor from Warsaw and Dutilleux The Shadows of Time ?

Of all Mahler’s symphonies, the first allows for the greatest range of interpretation. The way a conductor approaches it can reveal as much about himself as it might about the composer.  Salonen’s Mahler 1 dazzled with blinding brightness, but with purpose. In Beethoven Fidelio, the prisoners are suddenly let out from the dungeon into the sunlight, and sing the glorious chorus O welche Lust, in freier Luft den Atem leicht zu heben ! It’s glorious, but also tinged with defiance. The prisoners know, and we know, they aren’t going to escape, but for one wonderful moment they defy the darkness and raise their voices.  Florestan is  “Der Edle, der für Wahrheit stritt” (the noble spirit that strives for Truth), but the prisoners are, too, in their own way.

In this sense, Mahler’s first symphony is an exuberant break for freedom,  a statement of intent. The very first motif shone, and the trumpets rousing the orchestra to life.  Nothing somnolent in this awakening : alert, tight focus.  Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld : Mahler is striding, confidently out into the world.  The tiniest details were marked with clarity : an important observation since in the grand scheme of creation, all forms have their place. Consider that if you’re a prisoner about to be extinguished.  You’re not overlooked.  Confidence, but not brashness :  “Nicht zu schnell”  but striding forth with firm footsteps.  The Ländler section danced gracefully, a lovely contrast to the invigoirating brass figures that cut off with the haunting “funeral march”  apparently suggested by Moritz von Schwind’s How the Animals buried the Hunter  Death fells the hunter, and power structures are reversed.  The theme Auf der Straße steht ein Lindenbaum. These quotations from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen are important and Salonen knows why they count. The image of a linden tree might seem sweet, but its perfume reputedly had supernatural powers. Fall asleep under a Lindenbaum and you may never wake up. Salonen created sensuous textures, but kept the pace flowing. What a mix, sorrowful drones, graceful waltz figures and the tread of footsteps, fading away, tumultuous crescendi and  reflective themes. Mahler is looking backwards and looking forwards, in a sophisticated way.  Sometimes this complexity can be muddied, but the Philharmonia are such good players that they can define the different textures with absolute clarity.  How that final fanfare blazed, glowing all the more forcefully because it connected so well to what had gone before. Strengthened by the spirit of Wunderhorn, Mahler can set off on his mission, whatever obstacles he might face.

“I remember only the grandiose moment when they all started to sing, as if prearranged, the old prayer they had neglected for so many years – the forgotten creed! ! David Wilson-Johnson, the narrator, spoke in Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, with which the Prom began.  As the prisoners are facing death, they spontaneously remember what the prayer stands for.  They may be killed but their spirit will not be extinguished. Like the prisoners in Fidelio but in much worse circumstances. Gas chambers and in freier Luft den Atem leicht zu heben ,a juxtaposition too horrible to contemplate.  But confront such things we must or they could happen again.   Salonen is a brilliant Schoenberg conductor and the Philharmonia Voices and orchestra did the piece justice.  Salonen is also an admirer of Henri Dutilleux The Shadows of Time, which he has conducted many times.  The piece also refers to war and specifically the deaths of children like Anne Frank.  Salonen again understood the importance of lucid texture in the piece, letting its multi-coloured harmonies shine undimmed.

Mahler Symphony no 1 is heard very often – often “too” often – but Salonen and the Philharmonia made it feel utterly different, new and relevant. I’m not going to forget this experience in a long while.

Original Source: Blazingly relevant Mahler 1 – Salonen, Schoenberg Dutilleux

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