Mahler & Mussorgsky

Dates and Venue Saturday, 24 and 26 November 2007@ 8pm | The Orpheum Theatre

Strauss Don Juan Mahler Blumine and Rückert Lieder Mussorgsky/Howarth Pictures at an Exhibition

Conductor Elgar Howarth Mezzo-Soprano Anita Krause

Reviewer J H Stape

From its opening to its closing note, this was a concert dominated by internationally renowned English composer-conductor Elgar Howarth, who elicited taut, brisk performances from musicians on the top of their form and so obviously pleased to be working with an artist of such immense authority and experience.

The boisterous, bubbly opening of Strauss Don Juan (1889), with its swagger and bursts of energy set the evening's tone, which was one of large and impassioned gestures, assured authority, and swiftly changing moods. The typically sweeping lyricism of this tone poem was splendidly conveyed. The playing was never less than stylish, and both the dark melancholy moments and the full blazing grandeur of the rake confronting his final destiny were presented with aplomb and confidence.

The supremely lyrical Blumine (1883) -- a cancelled movement from Mahler's First Symphony discovered only in 1959 -- provided a ready contrast and an easy transition to a new soundscape. The strings produced a velvety sound, and Maestro Howarth demanded and got finely detailed playing of a piece that is all longing and gentleness.

Mezzo-soprano Anita Krause gave a pleasing performance of Mahler's Rückert Lieder. She conveyed the text's different moods with assurance, her voice poised and elegant. She was, however, somewhat drowned out in the third of the five. Her diction was flawless, and she conveyed dramatic intensity ably and with conviction.

For all the fine work in this concert's first part, the second was of a different order: forgive the playfulness, but Howarth's arrangement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) for percussion and brass was nothing less than a blow-you-away experience.

For all the effort spent on jollying the audience along with chatty interviews on those screens -- this was a "Horizons" series concert -- the audience was not informed of the inspiration behind the work in a posthumous exhibition of paintings by one otherwise long forgotten Viktor Hartmann (1834-73).

The programme notes -- and how good the programme has become over the past two seasons -- really fell down here, and good as it was to have Maestro Howarth's comments on his own arrangement -- really a re-composing of a work originally written for piano -- the shifting moods, the intimate and large scale dramas, and the picture painting were not justified for an audience possibly unaware of them.

Howarth's version -- Ravel's is the most famous of the many arrangements of this work -- is a thing by itself, and his own intimate knowledge as a performer of the possibilities of brass instruments is richly on display in this permanent contribution to the brass and percussion repertoire.

The nineteen players offered a bravura, edge-of-the-seat performance, the arrangement a demanding and dazzling exhibition of a range of sound that stretched from the lyrical and intimate (yes, for brass) to the showy and exuberant.

The concert closed graciously with two encores: "Pavane" by John Bull (1562 - 1628) and Bull's "The King's Hunting Jigge," both arranged by Howarth, that had the audience -- and how good to see so many well behaved young people -- dancing its way into the street.

© 2007 J H Stape