Mahler Centenary Concert

LAURIE KENT steps once more into the breach reviewing Girton Music Society’s latest concert, which tries to blend stormy romanticism with teenage angst

chad kelly chris laws gcms girton college music society great st mary's church mahler centenary concert raphaela papadakis

Saturday 19th February, Mahler Centenary Concert, Great St. Mary’s Church


The last time I reviewed Mahler for The Tab, my Editor recieved a series of increasingly rude emails from a pompously irate horn player, Miles Rackowe, founder of the Sinfonia, denigrating my reviewing abilities and, eventually, banning us from future concerts. Whilst I’m sure that this was unconnected to comments on Mr. Rackowe’s ‘fruity tuning’, it was with some trepidation that I went to review Girton’s concert last Sunday…

100 years have passed since Gustav Mahler’s death but, as The Girton Music society proved, his music is anything but dated. This celebration of the Austrian composer’s work is one of many taking place around the country to mark the centenary. The strong, if sometimes flawed, performances displayed all the characteristics of Mahler’s music that make it so important in our modern culture.

The venue, Great St. Mary’s Church, at times posed a problem. The performance of the Piano Quartet in A Minor, written when Mahler was sixteen and his only piece of chamber music, suffered the most. Whilst the moments of despair were impressive (perhaps the influence of the image of  crucified Christ), timid playing was lost in the large acoustic. Stormy romanticism and teenage angst seemed stifled by religious propriety, the players preferring stately tempos and moderate dynamics to the true anger that the piece suggests. Yet the soaring violin cadenza and tight ensemble work showed impressive standard of the musicianship on offer.

Chris Laws followed with his strong baritone rendition of the romantically tinged Songs of a Wayfarer. Laws exposed another side of Mahler. His fascination with nature, which pervades much of his music, was exposed with jolly smirks and nods.At times his performance seemed tied to the music stand but his passion swelled with the line “I have a red-hot knife in my breast”, displaying the more anguished sentiment of some of Mahler’s songs. Again, I would have liked more anger and more pain. Chad Kelly controlled a solid accompaniment from Girton’s Chamber Orchestra, yet it was sometimes too loud and had one bum note bad enough to lift even the singer’s eyebrow. It would have liked to have seen this performance a day earlier on the orchestra’s home turf of Girton College Chapel. But then I would have to work out where Girton actually is.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 was the highlight of the evening. Arranged by Erwin Stein for a chamber ensemble, the purity of Mahler’s musical vision was expounded. To make up for the lack of a full orchestra, a piano and a Harmonium (a cross between an accordion and an organ the performer excitedly tells us in the program notes) were added. Whilst the first movement was convincing, the second’s intricately bony, twisted irony was murdered by the church acoustics despite some excellent playing. Yet in the second half, this acoustic amplified the plays performance. A musical depiction of purgatory swirled around our ears, the chamber ensemble’s reverberations creating the impression of the full orchestra.

The fourth movement features a solo soprano, Raphaela Papadakis, as a child singing of heaven. He completely immersion in her role created genuine engagement with the audience and a stunning performance. The violence of the orchestral interludes contrasted with Papadakis’ serene expression, laying bare the irony that inhabits Mahler’s music. The acoustic blended the accompaniment’s sound and amplified the high frequencies of the triangle to a painful intensity, perfectly representing the “worldly tumult” the text describes.

Despite the acoustic problems and occasionally amateurish playing, this convincing concert provided a revealing cross section of Mahler’s music. Yet whilst the beauty and irony of the music was clear, its anger and pain could have been intensified. Of course, this is just my personal sadism: Mahler’s all-embracing music provides something for everyone. My own personal bond with Mahler came from the joys of A-level music and the desperate need to misinterpret somebody clever in the first line of my personal statement.  Girton Music Society should be thanked for reminding us of Mahler’s genius.