The combination of Britten and Mahler on a programme is always likely to be a big draw for audiences. With this year being the centenary of Britten’s birth, they will have more opportunity than usual to hear his music. The first of three evenings in the ‘Big on Britten’ series, this programme brought Barry Douglas to the concert hall to perform Britten’s sole piano concerto, paired with Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G.
Composed in 1938, Britten’s concerto is a lively, percussive work – Belfast-born Douglas, founder and artistic director of the Camerata Ireland orchestra, brought an intensity to his playing to match that of the music. From the opening Toccata through the second movement Waltz, Douglas maintained a clear and confident sound, the orchestra matching the passion of his performance.
The Impromptu, composed in 1945, sees a more reflective side of Britten, the strings underpinning the rolled piano figures. As the seven variations on the theme are played out, Douglas’ playing let the shifting sonorities of the piano writing come through. In the fourth and final movement, a rousing march, Douglas brought out an impressively expansive and dynamic sound.
Mahler, a composer not particularly known for his orchestral restraint, produced what is perhaps his most accessible symphony in the Fourth – but that very accessibility comes at the cost of some of the excitement of his other works. Austrian conductor Christian Arming struggled to raise the performance to the levels of excitement achieved by Douglas.
The opening movement , with sleigh bells ringing out as first the flutes and then violins introduce the theme, starts promisingly – Arming drawing a balanced sound from the NSO. Their combined efforts, however, aren’t enough to bring any real drama to the music. The scherzo second movement, with its principal violin tuned a tone higher than usual, brings some welcome tension to the sound. A somewhat macabre movement, Arming allows the unsettled, ominous nature of the piece to come through. That sense of dread continued to build right through to the third movement – a more serene response to the drama that came before, the oboe singing out its mournful tune, a lyrical and emotive piece.
The fourth and final movement is Das Himmlische Leben – or The Heavenly Life – saw soprano Mary Nelson take the stage. She brought just the right feeling of naïve innocence called for by the song, a vision of heaven as seen through the eyes of a child. Following the drama of Douglas’ impassioned performance was a big ask – but Nelson and the NSO, under Arming’s baton, carried that task off with aplomb.
Christian Arming – Conductor
Barry Douglas – Piano
Mary Nelson – Soprano
Benjamin Britten – Piano Concerto
Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 4