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Home Reviews Review of Nielsen / Mahler Concert on 12 November 2011

Review of Nielsen / Mahler Concert on 12 November 2011

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On Saturday 12th November the Winchester Symphony Orchestra under its conductor Nicholas Wilks built upon its fine performance of Mahler's 9th symphony in last year's autumn concert by playing a selection from his song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Simon Gallear (bass) and Hannah Medlam (soprano) were the excellent soloists.

Mahler is one of those composers whose sound is unmistakable. These settings, composed in the 1890s, display great harmonic invention and imaginative orchestration.

As soon as the orchestra began the first song, Der Schildwache Nachtlied, it was clear that it had been thoroughly prepared for the challenges ahead. Here, and indeed throughout the concert, there was finely characterised playing from all sections, especially the woodwind and the horns.

The relatively light sound from the baritone soloist, Simon Gallear, was at times a little overpowered in this song. The whole orchestra generally sounded in tremendous form - possibly a little too powerful at times for its accompanying role - it is almost impossible though to get the balance absolutely right with Mahler's instrumentation being so rich and the orchestral role so pivotal in setting the scene and providing the atmosphere.

As the programme note says, Wer Hat Dies Liedlein Erdacht is exceedingly difficult to sing but Simon Gallear tackled this extremely well as indeed did the orchestra.

In Rheinlegendchen the soprano Hannah Medlem, who had joined the baritone most affectingly in the first song, showed off her warm and musical voice, with an appropriately matching warm sound from the upper strings - and a beautifully played solo in the capable hands of the orchestra's leader Peter Marsh.

The orchestra provided just the right air of mystery in its accompaniment to Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt. Mahler here presents great challenges particularly to the woodwind. These were generally overcome but Mahler's demands are taxing and the odd wobble should not cloud what was an evening of fine playing from all sections.

I found Hannah Medlem's singing in Des Irdische Leben most moving. She captured the anguish of the frantically worried mother in a song which must surely have anticipated Mahler's later Kindertodenlieder - the deaths of children being a recurring tragedy in Mahler's life from an early age.

The final song in this selection, Wo Die Schönen Trompeten Blasen, showed off the orchestra at its best, with excellent contributions from brass, woodwind and muted strings. This song seemed to me to ideally suit the soloist's gentle, musical voice showing its real quality in this lyrical mode with no problems of balance between orchestra and soloist.

The songs were placed between two works by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. What a fascinating and stimulating programme this was!

Nielsen, a contemporary of the Finnish Sibelius (though not as long lived), created another utterly unique sound world-music of great muscularity but with moments of great tenderness.

The concert opened with, possibly Nielsen's best-known work, his overture Helios. Evoking the Greek sun god, and the first sounds depicting the sun rising over the Aegean Sea can make one immediately want to book a flight to Athens (notwithstanding the current financial crisis!).

The orchestra's playing of this rose to the occasion. That beautiful opening with its gradual crescendo depicting a Mediterranean sunrise was finely played. There followed a lively passage, which cruelly tests the upper strings in the very top register of the violin's capabilities.  Generally the demands of this taxing section were fulfilled, but if I say not totally, that does not detract what was for me - and clearly for the rest of the audience (many of whom were perhaps hearing Nielsen for the first time) - a most enjoyable performance.

After the interval : Nielsen's 3rd Symphony - the Symphony Espansiva. Is there another symphony in the repertoire that is quite like this? Vaughan Williams in his 3rd symphony written between 1916 and 1921 used a soprano singing a wordless lament almost like a solo orchestral instrument.  Here Nielsen demands both baritone and soprano in the second movement in a wordless vocalise. I wonder if Vaughan Williams knew this music?

In its arresting opening the orchestra showed its, and the composer's powers, superbly, the orchestral tutti sections demanding the audience to sit up and pay attention. The first movement progresses through episodes of relentless energy to a waltz, blazed out by the brass with great swagger and panache. This section is joyful, triumphant and yet a little grotesque all at the same time and the orchestra and conductor brought all these characteristics out so well.

The rich string tone of the WSO was especially apparent in the opening to the second movement. Here, special mention must be made of the oboe and flute solos, touchingly played.

The moments when the baritone and then soprano soloists came in were ravishingly beautiful and made one want to hear this fascinating and unusual symphony much more often. It is probably difficult for most orchestras to have soprano and baritone soloists available for this work, but here of course after their singing of the Mahler here was the ideal opportunity.

There was more excellent playing from horns and oboes in the energetic and muscular third movement and in the difficult fugal section for the strings- a difficult movement to bring off successfully but the orchestra did just that.

And then the finale - here the whole orchestra really sounded, and looked, as though it was enjoying itself - and surely the audience was too.

There was incisive playing from all sections and another fugal section negotiated without an unseemly pile-up.

It's no good pretending that there was not the occasional, (but only occasional) wobble or moment of insecurity or an unkind exposure in most sections during the evening, but this stimulating, imaginative and rewarding programme was also handled with great confidence and panache and, where required, touching sensitivity.

I have hardly mentioned the conductor Nicholas Wilks but so much of the success of the evening must be thanks to what was clearly meticulous preparation by him and to his clear beat and gestures. There was never a moment when sections of the orchestra would have been in any doubt as to what was required of them.

The performances showed great musicianship and an authentic attention to each composer's special sound world - another very fine achievement for the WSO - and a rare opportunity for us to hear these beautiful and exciting works.

A terrific and most enjoyable evening's music making and I hope the orchestra gave itself a collective pat on the back afterwards.

Peter Stone

Last Updated on Thursday, 24 November 2011 10:55  

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