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The urge to compare music to art is not a new one. Yes, one of them fills space – the other time – and perhaps a painting is altogether more mimetic than a work of music. Yet, the intrigue of the analogy remains. Monet and Debussy, Copland and Wyeth, Kandinsky and Webern, Feldman and Rothko – the resemblances go on. With respect to Mahler, his painterly bedfellow has (to me) always seemed to be a fellow Gustav: Gustav Klimt. These two artists – one of The Kiss, the other of the ‘Titan’ Symphony – were intimately bound by history. In their visceral redefinitions of form and representation, both set Vienna on course to become a centre of modernism in fin-de-siècle Europe. Indeed, much of Mahler’s oeuvre parallels the founding and growth of the Vienna Secession.

The two artists also shared a profound philosophical communion, prospecting growth and decay, love and happiness: themes explored throughout OUO’s concert on 11th February. From the grim introductory hammer-strokes of Brahms’ Tragic Overture, to the riotous ebullience of Coleridge-Taylor’s The Bamboula, and finally the all-encompassing Mahler – the programme moved between emotional antinomies in three works composed within twenty years of each other.

Confounding dichotomies of ‘Classical’ and ‘Romantic,’ Brahms is a difficult composer to interpret. With its brooding undercurrents contained in tightly-rendered formal structures, this account of the Tragic Overture suffered slightly under Natalia Luis-Bassa’s austere baton. At its best, the dusky string textures, and reticent solemnity of the wind Trauermarsch were rendered with great sensitivity, however the recurring tutti dotted motifs and syncopated hammer-stroke figures became simply too officious and belligerent for the music. Any issues in the Brahms were, however, quickly allayed in the Coleridge-Taylor. The orchestra’s nimble reading of this energetic work was utterly pristine, garnished with some colourful glockenspiel playing, and superbly confident brass entries.

The centrepiece of the concert was understandably the Mahler, and it was with this vast work that the orchestra came into its own. The Sheldonian was brought to life with off-stage brass fanfares, and trilling bird-calls from principal flautist Amy Fry, as Mahler’s musical landscapes took form. Luis-Bassa’s reading was lithe and sparkling, avoiding the dispensable Schlagobers in which so many conductors love to indulge when conducting Mahler. From the numinous, trance-like opening, Mahler’s congenial ‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld’ was introduced unhurriedly by the ‘celli, as the intensity of the first movement was given space to unfold gradually, like rolling fields of Alpine pasture. The symphony continued in the same sympathetic vein, bringing out moments of theatrical vitality (the bleating, stopped horns of the second movement translated beautifully in the Sheldonian), but also allowing the music to breathe when necessary. The palpable sense of ensemble in the strings, led by Amy Moynihan, lent a tenderness and chamber-like quality to the ‘zwei blauen Augen’ theme of the third movement, enriched by soft glissandi in the ‘celli.

The precursory restraint allowed the opening measures of the final movement to thunder with shocking potency, shaking the theatre as they must have done first at the 1889 Hungarian premiere. From this preliminary ‘outcry of a wounded heart,’ the thunderclaps and jousting motivic passages of the ensuing music advanced from tragedy to triumph, and the final climax was roof-raising. With glistering cymbals and bipedal declamations of ‘and he shall reign’ in the horns - led securely throughout by Tommaso Rusconi - the symphony that begins with the dawn of life ended in a blaze of fire: a Klimtian spectacle, with equal measures of sparkling gold and heartfelt shade.


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