Archive for April 21, 2012

Haydn and Mahler

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on April 21, 2012 by telescoper

Returning from my travels I thought it was a good plan to make the most of the many opportunities Cardiff presents for listening to live music by going to last night’s concert at St David’s Hall. In there’s a considerable flurry of activity in the music scene over the next few weeks so if I can find the time during the flurry of work that will happen simultaneously then I’ll probably be doing quite a lot of concert-going (and blogging). I’m particularly looking forward to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival which offers a much more daring selection of music than the rather conservative fare on offer at St David’s.

Anyway, last night’s concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales began with Symphony No. 104 (“London”) by Joseph Haydn, the last symphony he ever wrote. It’s very typically Haydn, beautifully crafted in a straightforward, middle-of-the-road kind of way. Under the direction of conductor Thierry Fischer the Orchestra gave a polished performance of what is a familiar favourite. Like the other Haydn symphonies I’ve heard (which isn’t all that many actually), I found it quite enjoyable but rather unadventurous. For all that I admire the way it fits together so beautifully, his music is a bit too “safe” for my liking. I found it all a bit trite, I’m afraid.

The audience was rather sparse for the Haydn, but after the interval it filled up with a lot of young people, presumably music students. A number of them had A4 pads at the ready, which made me conjecture that Mahler might be on the examination syllabus this year. In fact when I booked a ticket, most of the stalls area showed up as taken. As usual, however, most of the capacity was given to BBC employees rather than sold to the public. When I went to collect my ticket before the performance, there was a problem printing it out so I had to get someone to write one out by hand. When she started she asked “Are you with the BBC, or did you actually pay?” Often the recipients of this largesse don’t bother to turn up, which makes for flat atmosphere during the performance. It can’t be fun for the performers to see swathes of empty seats in front of them.

Anyway, as I said, after the interval the hall was much fuller, as was the stage as Symphony No. 4 by Gustav Mahler requires a much larger orchestra than the Haydn piece, although not as large as some of Mahler’s other works. Symphony No. 4 is one of the most accessible of Mahler’s works, which is not to say that it’s particularly simple from a compositional point of view; its shifting tonality contrasts markedly with the static feel of the Haydn work we heard earlier. There’s also much less angst in this Symphony than you get with other Mahler symphonies. Although it has its tempestuous passages, the prevailing atmosphere is one of an almost childlike tenderness and there are moments of radiant beauty. Often in Mahler the light merely serves to make the shadows darker, but not in this piece. It’s wonderful.

I particularly enjoyed the restful 3rd movement, starting with cellos and plucked basses and gradually expanding to incorporate the entire orchestra, it slowly swings between sadness and consolation.The last movement, based on an extended setting of the Song Das himmlische Leben from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, depicting a child’s version of Paradise, beautifully sung last night by soprano Lisa Milne. It’s a far more satisfactory conclusion than most romantic symphonies from a structural point of view, as well as being a wonderful thing to listen to in itself.

Although both symphonies consist of four movements, the Mahler (58 mins) is almost exactly twice as long as the Haydn (29 mins). But that’s not the point. There’s just so much more going on in the Mahler, both inside the music and in its emotional impact. Haydn entertained me, but Mahler moves me. I could summarize the difference by suggesting that Haydn was a craftsman and Mahler was an artist.

Discuss.