December 7, 2010 6:41 pm

London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican, London

When Mahler proposed to his future wife Alma, he informed her that her own ambitions as a composer would have to cease. “If we are to be happy together,” he wrote, “you will have to be ‘as I need you’ – not my colleague, but my wife.” Alma’s diaries are unclear how she felt, but her composing duly stopped.

It has been a challenge to find interesting ways to mark the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth this year. There are only so many times that the symphonies and song cycles can be played, so it was a welcome initiative when conductor Marin Alsop planned an interesting concert on Sunday with the London Symphony Orchestra to feature some of Alma’s songs alongside two of husband Mahler’s rarely performed editions of Beethoven.

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Only 17 songs by Alma Mahler survive. As lover of the composer Zemlinsky and artist Kokoschka, and future wife of the architect Walter Gropius and novelist Franz Werfel, Alma had a hot line to the artistic circles that mattered in early 20th-century Vienna. Not surprisingly, her songs are steeped in the lush and suggestive sound-world of that time, as the confident tide of romanticism started to ebb away.

In the mid-1990s a group of seven were orchestrated by Colin and David Matthews and these were the ones performed here. It is difficult to imagine them sounding better, sung by mezzo Sarah Connolly with a radiant warmth that made them glow and inspirationally scored by the Matthews brothers. The songs are modest – none projects a strongly individual voice – but their evocative beauty lingered after the music stopped.

The two Beethoven works being played in Mahler’s orchestrally retouched versions were the Overture Leonore No.3 and the Symphony No.7. This was not on the level of a recent concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, where an attempt to recreate Mahler’s tempo markings took the music on a wild ride, but the experiment was worth hearing. Whether the clarity and drive of Sunday’s performances came from Mahler’s editions or Alsop herself was not entirely clear. Either way the Seventh Symphony worked up quite a head of steam. (

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