New Worlds and Familiar Stages

Living on Newcastle Quayside affords me the fortunate opportunity to attend one of North East England’s most impressive concert halls, the Sage Gateshead. As its name suggests, the Sage Gateshead is not actually in Newcastle, but the two quaysides are separated by nothing more than an entirely negotiable stretch of the River Tyne, and to cross the river on foot via the pleasingly minimalist Millennium Bridge on a summer’s evening is to experience a most acceptable journey to any concert.

Our resident orchestra at the Sage is the Royal Northern Sinfonia, and my girlfriend and I are veterans of many a satisfying Sinfonia performance. However we were recently visited by Manchester’s principal symphony orchestra, the Halle. Being a substantially larger orchestra than the Sinfonia, the Halle is able to tackle a wider range of repertoire, including works orchestrated for greater numbers than the Sinfonia features among its ranks, such as the more modern symphonies of Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Bruckner. Their choice of Mahler’s Fourth for their Sage concert was definitely worth a short walk across a bridge.

But life composed solely of Mahler symphonies would be rather too intense, which is where Mozart comes in. The Mozart aria with which the concert opened was as Mozart should be, and usually is, certainly in professional hands: pure, pristine, youthful. The aria was originally featured in Mozart’s opera Idomeneo and was an admirably bold choice to start the programme, eschewing the easy temptation to begin with a popular but perhaps over-familiar overture. In this instance, the selection was apparently designed to accommodate both the soprano and piano soloists for the evening. While the performance was faultless, the orchestration was made to seem unnecessarily dense by the presence of the piano, which was written so Mozart himself could play along. But Mozart invariably complements other items on a programme so well, especially later ones, and such was the case here too.

The Liszt which followed, Piano Concerto Number 2 in A Major, felt rather more introverted and reflective than I had expected, given the composer’s reputation for wildly virtuoso piano writing. A few years back I had first come across Liszt in a Sage performance of his tone poem for piano and orchestra Totentanz, a dance of death, and the piano on that occasion rang out like an instrument possessed. Here we were, as I was then, right at the front underneath the piano, but this time our vantage point felt more like a shield from the orchestra than privileged access to the soloist. This owed a great deal to the character of the piece, and was no reflection on the excellent performance of soloist Benjamin Grosvenor, but my feeling was that we hadn’t been best-placed to enjoy the orchestra’s many pastoral melodies.

But we are told that one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, and what for the Liszt in the first half had felt like a handicap transformed itself into a shining virtue for the Mahler on the second. The Mahler is another piece with lots of wonderful pastoral melodies, not least in the strings. And as a violinist and violist myself, albeit not of the Halle standard, I am always very keen to hear these. Happily we were perfectly placed for this, particularly for the second violins, who seemed to have been dealt a particularly lucky hand by Mahler with some very lovely and prominent melodic work, often while the first violins floated away overhead. That said, the first violins were not without their busy moments, especially the leader and his mightily impressive alternation between two violins tuned a tone apart in the chilling second movement, which actually recalled Liszt at his most macabre, rather than in the peaceful and lyrical mood in which the first half found him.

It was certainly a fabulous performance of the Mahler, which brought out all of the joy and exuberance, the vivid images and the colourful adventures to places far and wide that characterise so many of the Mahler symphonies, especially the earlier ones. Like the First, the Fourth paints bold pictures of nature and takes its listeners on exciting journeys between extreme moods and vistas. And, like the Second, the Fourth ends its journey in song, introducing words to make the pictures clearer and take the journey into an extra dimension. The introduction of the soprano Sarah Fox in the final movement of the Fourth was a special moment, beautifully handled by the orchestra, lifting the music to that heavenly plain of which the soloist sings.

Mahler’s symphonies succeed, and achieve such power, because of their avowed and unapologetic tonality, and it is in many ways a shame that there aren’t more composers like him, particularly modern ones. To a great extent, Mahler came along a generation before he was really needed. Dissonance and atonality work, and matter, only in the context of tonality, and intelligible harmonies, otherwise they connote nothing. Mahler uses such tools, but sparingly, such as in the sinister second movement. But he knows all about breaking the rules; the Fourth symphony, mostly in the calm and contented key of G Major, modulates during its final movement to E Major, and remains there until its conclusion. The effect is to move the music to a different sound world, enunciating its transition to an angelic climax. Famously, Mahler believed a symphony should contain the world; by the end of the Fourth he has gone one better, and taken us to a new one.

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