Mahler Shown Through Origin and Legacy at Royal Festival Hall

While traveling around London the past few weeks, you are likely to have come across the advertisements for “Some of the most emotional music ever written”, that is, Mahler’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 5. Conveniently enough, his 1st Symphony is of my favourite pieces of music, and so I had to seize the opportunity to see it performed live.

The programme was well constructed and adapted to the average attendee, with not only Mahler’s 1st Symphony, but also excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s operas The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin. Additionally, we witnessed the UK premiere of Andris Dzenitis’ Mara for Orchestra. In total, we could enjoy roughly two hours of wonderful, classical music under the roof of the lovely, brutalist, Royal Festival Hall.

The night opened with Mara from the rising Latvian star, an interesting, modern piece. I may not be an avid fan of the experimental and atonal trend dominating the classical music scene, but the piece was expertly performed. The lack of recognisable musical themes drew my attention to the legacy Mahler left behind. His influence on Schoenberg, Berg and Webern enabled them to eventually create atonal music, an original move that Mahler defended against critics. In that sense, it left the audience with a better understanding of the influence Mahler actually had.

My romantic, melodic prayers were luckily answered soon. The excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s most beloved operas were absolutely stunning. Kristine Opolais’ wonderful soprano conveyed a whole range of emotions bound to pull at the heartstrings of anybody present in the room. And as a stark contrast to the first piece, we were now shown where Mahler’s music came from, the pieces he conducted in his own time.

After a short interval, we finally got to hear the main attraction of the night; Mahler’s 1st Symphony. Andris Nelsons conducted with a firm, yet gentle, hand and had a clear opinion on how the music was to be interpreted. The first and second movement displayed both the vitality of the piece, as well as Mahler’s use of musicians behind the scene.

The third movement’s first measures were played with a surprising amount of glissando, a stylistic interpretation that I am still not quite sure what I think about. The attentive listener would notice that this is in fact a variation of “Frère Jacques” in D minor. Furthermore, the measures consisting of folk music were less exaggerated than I have heard before, creating less of a contrast. Instead it promoted an overall wholeness, which was very pleasant.

The fourth movement, called Stürmisch bewegt (or Stormily agitated), detaches itself from the general D major key and changes to F minor, a dramatic break from conventionality at the time. The movement continues on as a dramatic struggle eventually making its way back to D major in a grand finale, leading to an instant standing ovation from the audience.

Overall, this was an absolutely stunning night, with a lot of value for the money spent, even when seated at the very back. The music was quite accessible for first-time visitors, while still remaining interesting enough for the indoctrinated. I highly recommend anyone to experience classical music in a room designed for that purpose, it really does make a difference.

photo from: southbankcentre.co.uk

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