By Richard Morrison
From the Times - July 07, 2006
On a steamy evening the prospect of hearing Das Lied von der Erde crashing round the marbled walls of the Pittville Pump Room was not wholly alluring. But this Cheltenham Festival concert had so many curiosities that the trainspotter lurking deep inside me felt obliged to tick them off his personal “been there, heard that” list.
For a start, this was not Mahler’s original Song of the Earth (you would never get the orchestra in the Pump Room, let alone an audience) but Schoenberg’s ingenious if severe reduction for 13 instruments, which the Nash Ensemble delivered with much finesse under Martyn Brabbins’s direction. Even 13 instruments, however, can sound tumultuous in this acoustic, and the two soloists — the mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel and tenor Peter Hoare — often had to push hard. It wasn’t always comfortable. But then neither is Mahler’s message.
That he could muster dark forebodings from an early age was evident from the piece that opened the concert: a piano-quartet movement he wrote as a 16-year old student at the Vienna Conservatoire. I defy anyone to identify this as Mahler from a blind tasting. The sad but sweet idiom is closer to Mendelssohn. Nevertheless, if you do know who wrote it you can certainly detect portents of the greatness to come — in the deft counterpoints, the wonderfully doomladen leitmotif that permeates the piece, and the histrionic modulations. By contrast, another early work exhumed here — Holst’s 1903 Wind Quintet in A flat (played for the first time in an edition by Raymond Hood that restores music cut by Holst’s daughter, Imogen) — offers virtually no clue that this is the composer who would create The Planets a decade later. It’s a well-crafted and vigorous work, but almost totally anonymous.
Two short new chamber pieces completed the programme. Both were 50th-birthday presents for Sally Beamish, the festival’s featured composer. I can’t say that either is the musical equivalent of a slap-up dinner and bouquet of roses. James MacMillan’s For Sally is a chilly treatment of what sounds like a snatch of folksong, while Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s Lumen cognitionis (“Light of Recognition”) follows a sombre, sour introduction with a lilting but tepid jig. Celebrating a 50th birthday is usually a matter of drinking oneself insensible. Perhaps these pieces were written the morning after.