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Review: Mahler 5 at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall ****

January 25, 2019

When Gustav Mahler premiered his Fifth Symphony in Cologne in 1904 the reaction ranged from warm to cold – with the majority of reviews being what might be termed tepid.

The composer himself apparently bemoaned his listeners’ lack of understanding and suggested: “I wish I could conduct the first performance 50 years after my death.”

Ironically it did indeed take the best part of half-a-century following his demise for the world at large to appreciate the Bohemian’s works, and for championing them not to sound the death knell for a promising musical career.

And so back to the Fifth, the symphony with no dominant key (it starts in C sharp minor and progresses to a final D major) but with plenty of physical presence, given a power-packed performance here by the RLPO under the baton of Robert Trevino.

The Texan gave real heft to Mahler’s magisterial opening funeral march, creating a dramatic, full-blooded cascade of sound of near Biblical proportions but still evoking a lightness of step through the movement’s contrasting lyrical sections.

A glorious finale to part 1 featured an abundance of luminous brass and percussion.

The scherzo brought more luminosity in a sustained series of glistening horn solos from Tim Jackson, while the work’s famous adagietto was a masterclass in radiant stillness and restraint ahead of a joyfully infectious rondo finale that ended in a flourish - and a deserved roar of appreciation from the Philharmonic audience.

Alban Berg was a student of Schoenberg who in turn was a disciple of Mahler, and Berg’s Violin Concerto, like Mahler’s Fifth, is a work with no dominant key.

However, unlike the Fifth, it embraces dodecaphony – a strong 12-tone technique devised by Schoenberg where all dozen notes of the chromatic scale are given equal prominence.

Berg penned the piece as a requiem following the death Manon Gropius, the teenage daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, and also – as Trevino told the hall in an interesting introduction – for a world that was rapidly changing (and for the worse).

The soloist plays pretty much continually through the piece, and Michael Barenboim, making his Hope Street debut, created a sweet and soulful tone – what one might call a warm mournfulness, while the spikes and smooth edges of violin and orchestra were nicely contrasted.

However, there were occasions the accompaniment overwhelmed the violin.

And despite the impressive tone, texture and technique on show, for some reason the concerto just failed to connect with its listeners – a strange flatness, thrown in to sharper relief by the heady atmosphere of the following Mahler.

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