Manchester does retrospectives exceptionally well, largely because the city's orchestras – the BBC Philharmonic, the Hallé and the Manchester Camerata – have an uncommon willingness to collaborate. Mahler in Manchester, their latest project, is a big, provocative anniversary tribute that defines the composer as an inspirational avant-gardist by prefacing each of his symphonies with a newly commissioned companion piece.
The opening concert, with Gianandrea Noseda conducting the BBC Philharmonic, paired the First Symphony with Kurt Schwertsik's Nachtmusiken, a depiction of early 20th-century Vienna, though Schwertsik extends his frame of reference to include an elegy for the late musicologist David Drew and an odd evocation of Janácek appearing to him in a dream. The latter forms the first movement, which meant that a series devoted to Mahler began with something that sounded incongruously like Katya Kabanova. The rest of it combines the lofty with the demotic, however, in ways that are Mahlerian in spirit, though not in its muted, spectral tone.
Attractively scored, it was played with considerable finesse, and its elegance contrasted with the cataclysmic performance of the First that followed. Noseda's Mahler is often austere, but this seethed with an in-your-face volatility that at times approached near-frenzy. In essence, he presented the piece as a young man's work in which occasional moments of raw execution are offset by an excited newness of vision, prophetic of the vast musical journey that Mahler was soon to take. It was also a reminder that though he went on to compose greater symphonies, he wrote nothing more original than this. Edge-of-your-seat stuff, and utterly thrilling.
Mahler in Manchester is broadcast on Radio 3 on consecutive Mondays from 5 April.
Tim Ashley, The Guardian
Sunday 17 January 2010
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