Edinburgh International Festival
25 August ONLY
It is most interesting to go to a concert where the entire programme is new to me. This concert began with songs written by Alma Mahler while she was still Alma Schindler, and ended with a symphony created from draft full scores and sketches left by her husband Gustav which were orchestrated and fleshed out by Deryck Cooke and the brothers Colin and David Matthews.
Alma was a talented musician and composer but her husband-to-be forbade her to continue composing after their marriage, saying “the role of the ‘composer’, the ‘bread-winner’, is mine; yours is that of the loving partner, the sympathetic comrade”. Towards the end of his life he looked at some of her songs and declared them to be really fine, and insisted that they were published. (Why the hell hadn’t he looked at them before? Condemning the creations without ever having looked at them is even more insulting than simply forbidding the continued exercise of her obvious talent…)
That apart, Sarah Connolly did a marvellous job of selling these songs to us: her rich voice soaring above the orchestra and sinking to a pianissimo, while Yannick Nèzet-Sèguin conjured expressive atmospheric orchestral tapestries through which the voice wove its melodies. My favourite song, from the lyrics’ point of view, was Waldseligkeit (Bliss in the Woods), a setting of a Rainer Maria Rilke poem, whose simplicity was matched by the vocal line and delicate scoring. The lyrics of the others didn’t speak so deeply to me, or impress me as particularly out of the ordinary – but then this period is not my favourite for Lieder, or indeed, orchestral music.
The symphony was also very interesting. I was glad to have programme notes, which helped me make sense of and recognise some of what I was hearing: and watching the conductor’s movements also made the music clearer. There were some excellent bits, some less so – I wonder what alterations, amendments, improvements Mahler might have made if he had had time? The first two movements contrasted strongly with the 3rd and 4th, which were written at the time Mahler discovered that his wife had been having an affair with the architect Walter Gropius: personal anguish suffuses the music, and the score has written comments expressing this above the staves. Mahler did all he could to win back his wife’s love, and the final movement brings about a resolution and forgiveness, and ends peacefully.
Again, it’s not my type of music, too surging and rushing and loosely-woven: but it would be interesting to compare the piece with Mahler’s previous nine symphonies. The conducting was again fabulous: I’m delighted that Yannick Nèzet-Sèguin becomes the Music Director Designate of the Metropolitan Opera in New York next year and takes over completely in 2020. It was a joy to watch him, especially when he abandoned his baton for the final few pages of the score, his hands delicately conjuring the final gently loving moments from the superb Rotterdam Symphony Orchestra.
The audience – and the orchestra – were loud in their applause at the end of the piece, and soloists and sections were called on to rise and receive their own applause before they and we were allowed to go home.