Bramwell Tovey/ VSO: Mahler 6th Symphony and Edward Gregson’s Dream Song, Orpheum, June 4, 2016.

 Photos courtesy of Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Photos courtesy of Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

It always takes some time for a conductor and orchestra to really get Mahler ‘in their blood’, and it would be a fortunate circumstance indeed if performing one Mahler symphony a year could do it.  This has been the tradition of Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.  Stylistic difficulties showed to some extent in an otherwise fine 9th symphony of two years ago, and last year’s 5th had some deficiencies in execution and interpretative line, but this year’s Mahler 6 promised something special. One important ingredient was that British composer Edward Gregson was in attendance for the North American premiere of his Dream Song, a companion piece for the symphony, commissioned by the BBC for the ‘Mahler in Manchester’ Festival of 2010.  Perhaps performing this work first gave Maestro Tovey extra inspiration for the symphony, for the performance eventually yielded some of his most naturally expressive and patient Mahler conducting, finding energy, balance and a fine sense of architecture.  In particular, the long, sprawling finale moved forward strikingly, achieving real integration and cumulative force by its end.  The Gregson piece, which marshalled distilled fragments and images from the symphony within a more modern constructional palette, was also distinctive, and I found I appreciated it more after hearing the symphony.

The Mahler performance did not settle right away.  The opening Allegro had an appealing gusto and passion, yet its linear drive tended to play down contrasts, and made things feel a little more generalized, and indeed rushed, than they had to be.  For one, I thought that the opening march rhythms were too light and quick: there was not enough thrust and ‘cheekiness’ to them.  The quiet wind passages did achieve a nice sense of relaxation, yet the lyrical passages in the strings did not have quite the same ease. ‘Alma’s Theme’ seemingly needed to expand more, and find greater languor.  One cannot deny that a basic continuity was always in place, but this approach did require some questionable rallentandos and clipped phrasing to get home.  While the brass coped diligently, one also might have wanted even greater accuracy from them.

Stronger poise and sensitivity was immediately revealed in the following movement, but the usual question arises as to ‘which’ following movement.  The debate over the ordering of the middle movements has gone on for years.  I grew up with the lumbering, but loveable, Barbirolli performance, so I am actually used to having the Scherzo first.  I think that enriches the tonal structure of the first movement, while creating a more intriguing and dark rhythmic intensity to set alongside it.  Nonetheless, it is now commonplace to put the Andante first (achieving conventional symphonic order), and that was the tradition followed here.  I thought the opening string lines achieved a much more natural Mahlerian repose and refinement, with a greater feeling of breadth and space.  The pacing was excellent, and the wind contribution was admirable.   The telling feature was the authenticity of feeling, and the sense of the right scale of intimacy.  It was only in a few of the more demonstrative sections that better dynamic terracing might have transpired, with a tempo more steadfast.

The Scherzo was fine, even if less noteworthy.  At the quick tempo, the rhythms were purposive in a martial way, but both the macabre and witty dimensions of their angular thrust did not come out forcibly. The Landler might also have had more charm, with greater expression from the winds.  The big story was the long and unwieldy finale: a real tour-de-force, and the best Mahler conducting that I have seen from this source. There is always a temptation to seek unrivalled power and cinematics in this movement, but this can end up making the construction seem fragmented and overblown. What impressed me was the sheer motion and sense of inevitability achieved, and the sincerity of the expression.  The performance was powerful enough -- the orchestra certainly stepped things up a notch – and it did not neglect either pastoral or macabre allusions.  Yet it was the recognition of the singularly Viennese template of ongoing build-up and seamless release that made everything fit together so convincingly. Even as the foreboding high strings made their repeated entries and the ‘hammerblows’ came and went, Maestro Tovey was never tempted to add extra emphasis to the story or to cultivate the ‘spectacular’; the line was always transparent and direct. In some ways, I almost ended up feeling that this finale had the same structural integrity that the finale of the 5th symphony does.  If the story exposed was not demonstrably ‘tragic’ (I often think that the symphony’s nickname does more harm than good), one could hardly help thinking that many very big things were going on in this massive complexity,  There was a great sense of emotional resolution at the work’s end, and it is rarely that I have been engaged this much.

Edward Gregson and Bramwell Tovey have already recorded the former’s Dream Song for Chandos in 2013 (review).  The work attempts to use distilled fragments from the Mahler symphony as if suspended in a dream, and integrated by way of a ‘song’ derived from four notes of ‘Alma’s theme’.  If one had just gone to bed after a gripping performance of Mahler’s 6th, what random images might invade you over the course of your nightly rest?  Perhaps the high string motive and the ‘hammerblows’ of the closing movement might enter first (as they did here), gently falling off to naturalistic cowbells and harps, only to be jolted later on by the eccentric rhythmic thrust of the Scherzo, with ‘Alma’s Theme’ moving in and out of it all. Having my own personal ‘dream’ about Gregson’s work after hearing the symphony complete, I recognized that the work gives you just enough links to the feelings and ambience of the symphony, while otherwise pursuing its own voice as a tightly-knit modern construction.  It has a wealth of instrumental effects, including violin solos, yet one still feels that it is a strongly-anchored composition , and one that gets quite far with an economy of means.  The work has both dramatic force and ingenuity, and it has an interesting lyrical canvas to go with it.  At first, I thought the lyrical lines were too public and streamlined to capture the real intimacy of Mahler’s personal world, but then I recognized that Gregson does not exactly wish to re-create Mahlerian expression. Rather, the composer aims to express his own depth of feeling in a fully contemporary way, using a sharp distillation -- and sometimes brazenly extreme amplification -- of Mahlerian inputs.  A very rewarding part of a very rewarding concert!

© Geoffrey Newman 2016