Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Northern Chords at St Andrews Hall - Mahler in Miniature

Gateshead based Northern Chords Ensemble delighted us last year at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival with a programme of Mendelssohn String Quartets at The Octagon Chapel. I was a steward on that occasion, and remember clearly that it was one of our volunteer team's first ever 'classical gig', and how she was totally blown away by the experience. Hopefully she has since enjoyed many more concert performances.

This year the ensemble are back, with an upgrade to the magnificent St Andrews Hall, and swollen in ranks to include a pianist, harmonium, oboe, flute, bassoon and two percussionists. I instantly recognise the ensemble leader, cellist Jonathan Bloxham, from last year's concert. Likewise, violinist Ricky Gore. The conductor will be the University of East Anglia's Director of Music, Stuart Dunlop, and Welsh mezzo-soprano Samantha Price will perform in the final movement of tonight's bill-topper, Mahler's Symphony No 4, arranged by Erwin Stein. She will also sing a series of six Maeterlinck songs, composed by Alexander Zemlinsky but also arranged by Stein together with Andreas Takmann. The programme will begin with Claude Debussy's 'Prelude à l'après-midi d'un faune'.

The evening is entitled 'Mahler in Miniature', a reference to the re-arrangement of the score to Mahler's Symphony No4 by Erwin Stein, enabling it to be performed by a smaller ensemble. The original Society for Private Musical Performance was founded in Vienna in 1918 by Arnold Schoenberg. Its mission was to enable important large-scale musical works to still be heard, even if the use of full-scale orchestras was restricted by post-war austerity, as well as a shortage of able-bodied musicians. Schoenberg and his students re-arranged a total of 154 works, and over three years made 353 concert performances. Quite a contrast to the massive Symphony No8, the so-called 'Symphony of a Thousand', performed earlier at the Norfolk Showground Arena as part of the festival programme. And a deliberate synchronicity that leads us here tonight for what is indeed 'Mahler in Miniature'.

Even if the enormous space of St Andrews Hall is not necessary to accommodate the Northern Chords Ensemble (in fact, they are almost dwarfed by the impressive stage and the large organ behind), then the venue is certainly appropriate to the large audience that has turned out on a school night for this performance.

Debussy's ten minute symphonic poem is one of the most accessible and popular pieces of late 19th century orchestral music. It was one of the first pieces that I discovered as a teenager - it served as title track for Eumir Deodato's 1973 jazz album 'Prelude', and my love for it remains to this day. it is slightly disconcerting to see an electric keyboard substituted for a genuine harmonium, but we have to be realistic about the chances of obtaining the genuine article, and it is skillfully balanced into the ensemble without its sound being overly intrusive or obviously electronic.

Before welcoming Samantha Price to the stage, Stuart Dunlop takes the opportunity to explain the text and contextual content of the Maeterlinck songs, and at the same time covers the lyrical content in the final movement of the Mahler. In Dunlop, we are indeed fortunate in having both an accomplished conductor (he studied under Sir Colin Davis) and prominent academic with us tonight.

Samantha has a lovely warmth to her voice that possesses both clarity and volume that is in no way swamped by the size of the venue, yet never threatens either to overpower the individual musicians of the ensemble. As she works proficiently through the German text, I am again grateful to Stuart Dunlop for his explanatory introductions.

After the interval the ensemble members return and Stuart Dunlop takes to the podium. He is an intense conductor, and seems to employ an almost meditative pause before starting each piece, yet during the performance he works with a directness and detail to attention that demands to be admired. Mention also has to be made of the clarinetist (Joseph Shiner), oboist (Alex Hilton) and flautist (Alena Lugovkina), all of whom throughout the evening are forced to switch instruments, sometimes in rapid succession, to cover the dynamic range normally provided by the individual members of a full orchestra. Ben Baker seems to manage it with two violins as well. And of the two percussionists (Mark Edwards and Emmanuel Joste), who successfully tailor volumes to exactly the right levels needed to maintain a balanced performance. Bravo.

This is a familiar work to many of us, probably the most widely performed of Mahler's nine completed symphonies, but this ensemble performance exposes and highlights detail and flourishes sometimes missed in the full orchestral version. It gives the work a whole new lightness and transparency that I loved, and will certainly attempt to seek out a recorded version in this form. Once again, Samantha Price absolutely nails it in the fourth movement, giving the whole evening a spellbinding climax. Her ovation at the end is certainly well-deserved, as is that offered to Stuart Dunlop and the entire Northern Chords Ensemble.

A wonderful evening that sets me up perfectly for Penny Arcade's one-woman show later at the Spiegeltent. It is not just Mahler that is providing the contrasts within this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival programme!

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