St Alfege's church, Greenwich
14 September 2013
First movement of Brahms' clarinet trio, in a classic performance by Kell, Pini and Kentner.
Ambitious and interesting free concerts showing that even the largest scale works can be given revealing performances in more intimate surroundings.
My heart sank when I learned that instead of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, the Kantati Ensemble were going to play a chamber version of Mahler’s First Symphony complete their free concert in Hawksmoor’s relatively intimate St Alfege’s Greenwich.
My fears proved mistaken. Undoubtedly some weight was lost, but the cramped acoustics ensured that conductor Lee Reynolds carefully worked up to the climaxes. And this helped strengthen the performance: I think Mahler benefits from a measured, rather than rhapsodic or excitable approach.
As this quixotic programme selection indicates, his rise in popularity and esteem continues. Perhaps his musical anxiety and neurosis reflects our present condition, but I don’t believe this is what we feel when while we listen. Surely his success is due to his sheer sound, the remarkable lyricism and orchestral colour combined with resounding climaxes.
Mahler’s makes famously original use of the different sections of the orchestra, so that a chamber version really highlights that variety.
The first is his most straightforwardly enjoyable work, also relatively unambitious, so didn’t lose as much with reduced forces. Chamber orchestras rarely get to make so much noise, but on the evidence of this performance they can produce revealing performances of these orchestral monsters.
Before the interval, Mozart’s fifth violin concerto made an interesting, perhaps unintentional comparison. Ideas are thrown around with a similar profligacy, but the effect is different. Mozart certainly didn’t intend to throw his audience around, as Mahler did.
Soloist Beatrice Philips gave a sweet-sounding, quasi-romantic account of the violin part, though this is not an inspired work: I assume the composer wanted to write it for piano instead.
A desultory performance of the same composer’s Figaro overture opened the concert, but in fact this industrious ensemble had already provided a more effective opening an hour before, as three of its members played Brahm’s masterful Clarinet Trio in the same church.
Here the comparison with Mahler was explicit. The programme pointed out that both composers used a ländler in the works we heard, and handled them very differently. And the finale of the chamber piece prefigures later rhythmic developments. Brahms the progressive, indeed.
This is a subdued work, far removed from the exertions of Mahler (the programme notes plausibly suggest the latter was attempting to blow Brahms out of the water with his first). It was given a committed performance, though given the venue I would have liked softer playing.