Alban Berg Seven Early Songs
Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 5
London Symphony Orchestra
Camilla Tilling soprano
Francois-Xavier Roth conductor
Barbican Hall, London 21 January 2016
"After Romanticism" was the title of the concert, and certainly in the resonance-free acoustic of London's Barbican Hall, Parsifal had never sounded so abstract and modern. Wagner's long musical lines of religious mysticism stepped abruptly into silence. Not for the first time the excellence of the LSO strings was striking.
Berg followed, the words vividly interpreted by soprano Camilla Tilling even if she rarely projected her voice far into the hall. And then to Mahler after the interval. Roth writes of this period of the end of the 19th and start of 20th centuries fascinating him and throughout this reading he seemed intent on emphasising the strangeness of Mahler's new sound world. Written in 1901-2 this sprawling masterwork baffled contemporaries and Roth was inviting us back into that jarring first encounter.
Organic dimensions were recessed and the sheer weirdness of the orchestration at for example the close of the second movement, was striking. This is a personal favourite amongst Mahler's uneven symphonic output, but I found myself with sacrilegious thoughts. Surely 10 minutes could be cut from the Scherzo and not be missed? Does the finale really work, and doesn't it also carry a lot of fat?
At the crucial adagietto, it was all a bit calculating for this love poem. At the climax Roth's baton-less hands flailed at the air, part Stokowski, part claws. It was a visual counterpart to a moment that wanted a more delicate approach.
So a night of mixed results. But Roth is clearly a conductor of strong ideas, and with the LSO strings on majestic form this night will linger in the mind.