Review: BBC NOW - Mahler’s Fifth Symphony @ SDH
It has been a year since BBC NOW's previous principle conductor Thierry Fischer left us and we have been acquainted with Thomas SÃ¸ndergÃ¥rd. This young new Danish conductor has had a fierce impact on the previous year’s musical landscapes in Cardiff, with a fine and eclectic mix of Scandinavian music and works from further afield.
For this last concert of the season the concerto was Huw Watkins and was written for the Polish violinist Alina Ibragimova, who was also playing it at this concert. Born in 1985, she has already become one of the hottest properties in violin playing today. Her stamina is commendable, her technique awe-inspiring. She is a little button of a lady and the look of concentration as she squints her eyes and hunches over is gripping. She handled all the journeys and mood swings of the music and delivered what was some of the best musicianship I have seen in yonks. She’s one of those performers you just can’t wait to see perform again.
What dominated most of the evening was that looming presence of Gustav Mahler. His Fifth Symphony is easily up there with the ‘great fifths’ of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and later on with Shostakovich. This work, which goes on for over an hour, is tiny compared to some of his other symphonic works, which could easily tease around two hours. These are some of the longest ever written and his ambitious nature is the complete opposite of the man himself.
Just before his fifth, he met his wife to be, Alma Schindler. They had a daughter together, who would die tragically young. Alma would soon go off with other men. Mahler had said that each of his symphonies is a self-portrait. It couldn’t be more clear than here, of all the swirling mixed emotions he must have felt as all this went on around him. Not only that, a haemorrhage caused by over-working as a conductor around Europe (not to mention the anti-Semitism going around back then against him) nearly killed him. You can’t help but feel quite sorry for the poor chap. He died at the age of 51. He never had a break.
An example of his emotional roller coaster would be the start and finish of the work. It opens with a funeral march for trumpet solo and ends with a frantic and joyous mood. The scherzo is also very jovial and makes me thinks of times to skip in the field, with lambs jumping around as milkmaids see to their cows. This is also from where the Austrian quality of the music comes. Parts of the music do feel very outdoorsy and make you want to visit the Alps and take in the crisp, clean air.
The orchestra and our maestro once again blasted the hall with this mesmerising composition. This work, written 1901-02, certainly heralded in a new century of new and exciting music. Mahler has taken flak for his music in the past. But love him or hate him, you certainly can’t deny his place in musical history.
If you have never heard his music but would like to, then start here. There is no better work to introduce you to him. If you don’t fancy listening to the whole seventy minutes, try the sublime Adagietto, the fourth movement. Used in the film Death In Venice and described by the composer in the sheet music as needing to be ‘very slow’, this is a romantic blockbuster if ever there was one. It somehow feels prickly and can be very heated yet sumptuous.
As for the next year of music, the Autumn starts with a fantastic sounding film concert.