I will never cease to be astonished by what sells and what doesn't. On Wednesday, some rather dull Georgian choral music was sold out; last night there was no shortage of spare seats as one of the world's great chamber orchestras came to town for the first of two concerts. One wonders if the rest of the people of Suffolk had any idea what they were missing. Perhaps the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is not a household name, but it certainly should be.
Its origins lie with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, which itself was founded in 1986 by none other than Claudio Abbado with the aim of brining together young musicians (up to the age of 26) from both eastern and western Europe. Today it holds auditions in twenty-five European cities and the result is an astonishingly fine ensemble (as I expect they'll show in Prom 45 in September). The Chamber Orchestra was formed in 1997, under the guidance of Abbado, by former members who wanted to carry on playing together after having reached the age limit. Abbado still regularly works with them. Indeed, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, augmented by players from the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, forms the backbone of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra which Abbado has led in some acclaimed recordings and a recent Proms performance of Mahler's third symphony. Since 2003 their music director has been Daniel Harding. The last time I encountered them it was at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival with Abbado conducting them as they played Mozart's Magic Flute. Despite having only been going a little over a decade, they have managed to notch up 14 prize winning CDs.
I don't normally begin a review with such gushing praise and the history of an ensemble. I merely do so here to underscore how baffling it is that this was not a sell out. This is their only UK appearance this season (indeed, the only one showing on their website which covers from August 2008 to May 2010) and consequently something of a coup for Aldeburgh. Perhaps, though, more people needed to be told this, and it has to be said that while the festival brochure really sold last night's Georgian's, they didn't really sell the MCO. That's a pity. Still, on with the review.
The first thing to note about the concert is that Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the new artistic director of the festival, really impressed me. That's more of an achievement given he only played in one piece. However, at the start of each half he gave a brief talk (something that often annoys me). What became clear was how carefully he has programmed some things, and it made me feel that the festival is in good hands. He explained that because Haydn's 60th symphony, which was to follow, contains a joke wherein Haydn makes it seem as though the orchestra has got out of tune, Ligeti's Ramifications therefore made a perfect coupling. He used the orchestra to illustrate how the two halves of the twelve piece string ensemble were a quarter tone out of tune with each other. This sort of thing can be annoying when discussing a well known work, however it is fascinating when shedding light on something you've never heard before, and makes it easier to appreciate a new piece. Of course, there are often pre-concert talks, but when you've been to an afternoon performance as well, they often aren't manageable. I hope this is a taste of things to come. The piece itself was fascinating, containing some interesting effects as the two sections rubbed up against one and other. Most of the time the playing was exquisitely light and delicate, and yet there were some impressive climaxes too. On the podium Suzanna Malkki was unassuming yet exerted tight control.
This was followed by Haydn's 60th symphony, slightly unusual with its six movement structure. The first three were played nicely enough, with a controlled bounce and joyfulness. However it was with the fourth movement presto that Malkki brought real drama. Then in the fifth came some stunning playing as brass fanfares rang out over pizzicato strings. After the tuning joke one might think there was nowhere left to go, but they found an extra degree of energy for a thrilling close.
During the interval the stage was rearranged and the piano moved into place. Once again, Aimard turned to the audience to introduce the Birtwistle. He spoke about opening the festival with clocks (how many more times is it going to be rubbed in that I missed Ligeti's metronomes?) and that celebrating Haydn as they have been, how could his clock not feature? Before that, however, Slow Frieze for piano and ensemble. Again, illustrating with examples, he showed how the four sections: piano, strings with brass, percussion and winds were each doing their own thing (so much so that at times percussion had to cue winds rather than the conductor). I found it a fascinating work, not too jarring, as his compositions can sometimes be. It was too easy to focus completely on what one section was doing before realising something else interesting was going on somewhere completely different. The person I went with (not a regular attender of classical concerts) likened it to being in the corridor outside four practice rooms. Actually, this is a pretty apt description (and some probably wouldn't like it as a result). However, it did mean that there never really was any sense of conversation or any unifying theme.
They had, though, saved the best until last with Haydn's 101st symphony, The Clock, long one of my favourite of his works, indeed one of my favourite symphonies. Malkki took the introduction slowly before launching furiously into the main theme. And yet there was no shortage of playfulness or delicacy when called for, the latter especially in the way they brought out the clock theme in the slow movement. Malkki's was an interesting take on Haydn: joyful, but not quite the boundless joy of Bernstein; weighty, yet never being too heavy or rich in the way I find Davis's Concertgebouw readings to be. Nor was this the Haydn of Jochum, with everything turning on the minuet. It was something of her own, and a joy to hear too. She brought the work to a thrilling close.
Throughout the playing of the orchestra was really quite exceptional. The quality of their quiet playing, and their ability to vary volume or tempo on a knife edge, is the stuff great orchestras are made of and always a privilege to witness. For those that were not there, the BBC was on hand with its microphones and the results can be heard on Performance on 3 tonight.
Their next concert on Saturday (which features the Emperor concerto and more Haydn) is sold out. If you haven't got a ticket and are anywhere near the area, for goodness sake do everything legally possible to obtain one, who knows when you'll get the chance to hear this band again.