Berg: Piano Sonata Op. 1, Chamber Concerto; Mahler: Symphony No. 9

Mitsuko Uchida, Christian Tetzlaff; Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen

Royal Festival Hall, 24 March 20094.5 stars

Mitsuko Uchida

Programming Berg's intimate single movement piano sonata, his unforgiving chamber concerto and Mahler's epic ninth symphony all in the same concert initially seemed like a rather bizarre thing to do.  However, a consistent approach and some captivating playing meant that this, the third instalment of the Philharmonia's City of Dreams series, turned out to offer a surprising new perspective on the relationship between Mahler and Berg's musical thought.

Berg's piano sonata is usually considered to be his first mature work.  It is certainly the first in which he demonstrates mastery of the principle of 'developing variation' – something his teacher Schoenberg felt was missing from earlier more song-like attempts.  That being said, in the virtually atonal language of this sonata, Berg still hasn't found an effective way of differentiating harmonically between first and second subject.  The lyrical nature of both main themes only compounds the problem and the piece often sounds a little samey in performance.

Mitsuko Uchida avoided this by distinctly characterizing each musical idea without ever straying from a refined Brahmsian idiom.  I did feel that some of the stringendo passages were slightly garbled, but this was more than made up for by the controlled, thoughtful phrasing.  Her intense manner of performance, in which she retreats into a private communion with the music, perfectly suits Berg's expressionist style.  The audience isn't so much drawn into the deep emotion, but rather witnesses the suffering of the alienated individual helplessly from a distance.

The rarely performed chamber concerto was written as a present for Schoenberg on his 50th birthday.  In an open letter to the older composer Berg writes that the piece is not just a concerto for piano and violin, but also a 'concerto for composer'.  The trouble is that he's so keen to show off his technique that he doesn't think about the performer or the audience.  The piece is virtually unplayable and impenetrable to any listener without access to a score.

The soloists and Esa-Pekka Salonen managed to overcome many of the work's inherent difficulties and give a performance that spun a persuasive narrative line through Berg's fractured textures.  By concentrating on the overall effect rather than glorying in the excitement of momentary gestures, they were able to make some sense of Berg's cerebral games.  Balancing the assortment of fifteen solo instruments is a headache and it was clear that a lot of rehearsal time had gone into getting that right.  In the second movement, for example, the ensemble always allowed the solo violinist Christian Tetzlaff to be heard, but he also had the humility to hang back and let the wind players through when he was accompanying.  Tetzlaff also deserves praise for his ability to communicate the direction of the music without ever overstating his importance in the group.  Throughout, Salonen was like an invisible puppet master: subtly shaping the whole, but always allowing the soloists to remain the focus of attention. 

Of course his more usual very visible physical gestures were back for the Mahler 9.  The symphony is built out of musical elements that repel one another like the poles of a magnet and it is the job of the conductor to ensure maximum contrast between them.  Salonen achieved this so effectively that we could hear the forces trying to blow the music apart.  We were able to see how something like the fragmentary Berg chamber concerto would result if the explosion were allowed to take place.

The polarities work on two levels in the first movement: there is a tranquil, diatonic D major theme which is continually interrupted by passionate, highly chromatic D minor outbursts.  But then within those outbursts there is a plurality of voices all violently jostling for supremacy.  The result is that clichéd tonal gestures, such as the climactic moments that we feel ought to be overflowing with joy, become instead uncomfortable, hollow parodies of similar effects in the earlier symphonies.  In this it also prefigures the chamber concerto where all kinds of tonal gestures are duplicated, but with their emotional content squeezed out.

One final link that this concert made was to demonstrate the fluidity with which both Berg and Mahler both treat time.  In the concerto and the symphony, things happen before or after they're supposed to, or things that should be happening separately happen together.  The most obvious example of this is the way in which both pieces end.  After the final chord has been sounded, little flashes of the themes keep cutting back in, destabilizing our comfortable notions about the linearity of time.

For a symphony that lasts in excess of 80 minutes, the Philharmonia played with remarkable concentration, vigour and passion.  There was also room for a little humour.  In the first scherzo, which begins with a lively peasant waltz, the strings and bassoons followed Mahler's direction of 'quite clumsy and very rough' to the letter.  When they were then joined by the horns a right old drunken knees up ensued.  A universe away in the profoundly moving finale, an opulent string texture coupled with some beautiful solo horn playing guaranteed that this was a performance to remember.

By Marc Brooks


SalonenRelated articles:

Review of the previous installment in Salonen's Vienna series
of the current Royal Festival Hall season
Review of Daniel Barenboim conducting Schoenberg at the Proms
Review of Valery Gergiev conducting Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony

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