Mahler’s Eighth and coming out of COVID-19

The Coronavirus pandemic has hit the arts hard, and only recently have we seen tentative shoots of recovery where live music is concerned. The great choral epics are still some way off, it would seem – which leads John Earls to ponder when he might complete his personal Mahler symphony cycle…

Mahler’s Eighth is the only one of his symphonies I haven’t seen performed live. It’s not because I haven’t wanted to. The sheer scale of the piece (it includes eight soloists, two choirs, children’s chorus and full orchestra including concert organ) means it is the least performed of his symphonies. It is also regarded by some as too grand, incoherent, and even kitsch, in comparison to the others – Part 1 is a setting of the Latin Hymn Veni Creator Spiritus and Part 2 a setting of the final part of Goethe’s Faust.

The last two times it was performed in my home city of London personal commitments (a friend’s wedding and my son’s birthday) prevented me from attending and completing my personal ‘live Mahler cycle’ (although with due respect to my son he said he wouldn’t mind too much if I went).

The Eighth has been on my mind again recently. Firstly, Stephen Johnson has just published a book on the symphony, The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910. I’ve not read it yet, but very much look forward to doing so (I loved his essay on Shostakovich). But Johnson’s book is about the time of the symphony’s premiere. My thoughts have been about the symphony in the present and the future. More specifically, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and coming out of COVID-19.

It’s been well documented how seriously live music, and the arts generally, have been hit by the pandemic. The recent government announcement of support is welcome, but much work still needs to be done and many organisations continue to face an existential crisis.

With lock down and social distancing I realised (perhaps rather selfishly) that I wouldn’t be seeing the Eighth, nicknamed the Symphony of a Thousand (although not a term Mahler himself used), any time soon. But then I started thinking about the piece itself and what it gives to us in this extraordinary time and as we start to come out of COVID-19. To be honest, the Eighth isn’t even my favourite Mahler symphony. However, its themes of enlightenment, redemption, and the power of love, whilst being somewhat perennial, may have a particular resonance at this moment.

Much of the classical music I have been listening to since lock down has tended to be subdued, dare I say austere. This has particularly been the case in respect of recently streamed concerts such as the wonderful June series put on by the Wigmore Hall in association with BBC Radio 3, beautifully bookended by Stephen Hough’s playing of solo piano pieces by Bach and Schumann, and Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida’s performance of Schubert’s Winterreise.

So, at first, there was something quite disconcerting and then ultimately uplifting about the sheer force of listening to the Eighth again, not least when orchestra and choirs combine to such powerful effect right from the off, including the organ. There are some wonderfully delicate moments in its hour and a half too.

Which version to listen to? Two recordings often cited are those by Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Decca, 1971) and Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 1991 (EMI, 2011). Both are excellent (although Tennstedt probably just shades it for me). I also have a soft spot for Sir Simon Rattle’s 2004 live performance with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI, 2005).

It is notable that two of these are live recordings and, of course, much of what is said about Mahler’s Eighth is about it being seen or heard live. Which brings me back to my point about performance. There is something about the combination of the mass assembled forces performing together and being joined by an audience in an even bigger collective. Stephen Johnson (again) put it well in a recent episode of Radio 3’s Music Matters with Tom Service: “A great deal about the ecstasy of this piece is about unity and many, many voices being combined together”. True that. And not just in the context of COVID-19.

I’m still disappointed that I probably won’t get to see a performance of Mahler’s Eighth (at least as we traditionally know it) any time soon. However, I do know that when I do eventually see it, in whatever form, it will have a very particular significance and will, no doubt, be incredibly moving. And not just because I will have completed the cycle.

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union and tweets at @john_earls

You can watch Sir Simon Rattle conducting the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, massed choirs and soloists (including Christine Brewer, Soile Isokoski and David Wilson-Johnson) in a 2002 performance of Mahler’s Symphony no.8 as part of this year’s BBC Proms TV coverage. The broadcast will take place on BBC Four on Sunday 9 August.

Photo credit: Thomas Søndergård conducts massed Proms forces and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony at the BBC Proms in 2018. (Chris Christodoulou / BBC)

LSO: Always Playing – Katia & Marielle Labèque, Szymanowski and clarinet masterworks tonight @ 7pm

There is an enticing potpourri of 20th and 21st century music from the London Symphony Orchestra on tonight’s installment of the LSO’s online series ‘Always Playing’.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the orchestra in the Hungarian Peasant Songs from Bartók before they are joined by tenor Edgaras Montvidas for Szymanowski‘s seldom heard but exotic ballet Harnasie. Then clarinetist Chris Richards steps up as the soloist for works composed by Stravinsky and Bernstein for the great Woody Herman</strong).

However the main work of the evening's concert is a big, half-hour concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra from Osvaldo Golijov. Nazareno, completed in 2009, is based on themes from La Pasión según San Marcos, and is fronted by the Labèque sisters, with percussionists Gonzalo Grau and Raphaël Séguinier.

The performance, from Thursday 13 December 2018, can be seen on the orchestra’s YouTube channel from 7pm tonight here:

Talking Heads: Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood
Picture courtesy of Decca Classics

Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a rare commodity. In the midst of dazzling publicity, he is helping open doors for classical music by his very approachable demeanour and an approach to album-making that brings it into closer contact with other forms. On the evidence of this interview he is refreshingly grounded and intently focussed on his first love, which of course is music.

While some have expressed concern that the cellist might be overworked early in his career, our discussions around second album Elgar confirm him to be relaxed and deeply satisfied with the newest addition to his discography.

His debut album Inspirations, released this time in 2019, presented the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, the piece he played to win the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016. Kanneh-Mason coupled it with diverse pieces from Pablo Casals, Offenbach, Leonard Cohen and Bob Marley. This time however his main focus is the work of a much older man, the Cello Concerto in E minor of Sir Edward Elgar.

The recording of this much-loved corner of the cello repertoire was made with conductor Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. It has an intensity which belies Kanneh-Mason’s tender years, offering new viewpoints into what will be familiar music to a lot of people. Again the context into which Sheku puts the Elgar on his album is intriguing, of which more later. But where did he first hear the music of Elgar – and was it the piece he has just recorded?

“It would have been the concerto, definitely”, he recalls. “I listened to it a lot when I was younger, and I grew up with the famous Jacqueline du Pré version. While we were working on it I listened to a lot of different recordings of the piece, it’s such a special work. Other recordings I really love are the most recent Steven Isserlis recording, Truls Mørk with Simon Rattle, and the famous one from Beatrice Harrison with Elgar himself conducting. There is a huge range of ways in which people approach the piece, and what strikes me about the piece is that everyone reacts in a different way.”

The second movement (a Scherzo) finds Kanneh-Mason and Rattle scooting along with a particularly quick choice of tempo, and the cellist clearly relishes the fast bow strokes required. “It’s a fun piece to play, and you get swept up in it but you have to work on getting a lightness of touch with the repeated notes.”

Elgar’s concerto may be the main piece on the album but there are a variety of shorter pieces imaginatively included by Kanneh-Mason. One composer in particular we may be hearing from again is the Swiss-born American Ernest Bloch, born to Jewish parents. Two of his shorter pieces are included here. “I love his music”, says Sheku. “For Grade 8 I did the Prayer for cello and piano, which is a piece I knew to play young. It’s music I really love, and there’s also the piece for cello and orchestra, Schelomo, which I hope to record in the future. You can feel some of the pain in the harmonies he uses.”

More obscure still is a piece for cello ensemble, Hymnus, by the German composer Julius Klengel. “It’s an amazing piece”, he says. “He was a cellist as well, so I think that’s how he ended up writing for 12 instruments. Every week at the Royal Academy of Music we had a cello ensemble, and that’s how we got to know it. There’s a nice link there, as there is for all the pieces on the album. It’s very inspiring being around really young hardworking musicians and all of us being based in one place.”

How does Kanneh-Mason balance his studies with days like today, where he has a whole day of promotional interviews to navigate? “I just have to be very organised with my time, which is a good thing for us anyway. I never feel that I have too much on.”
He is particularly gushing when talk turns to his work with Sir Simon Rattle, and the bond they share in the interpretation of the Elgar. “Definitely. I think what I love about working with someone is the freedom to do what I want but knowing that they can do everything as well. It’s the spirit of true collaboration I think”.

The theme of collaborating runs through both albums, and Kanneh-Mason identifies with this original approach. “It’s nice to have a link and a reason for putting them together, like creating a concert program. It’s great to record a masterpiece and a big piece, and put it with smaller pieces that have an equal range of colour and harmony, and perhaps more subtleties.”

For Elgar he was helped by Simon Parkin, with sensitive arrangements for cello and orchestra of Elgar’s Nimrod, from the Enigma Variations, and the Romance originally written for bassoon and orchestra. To that he adds Frank Bridge’s Spring Song, the folksongs Blow The Wind Southerly and Scarborough Fair, and Fauré’s profound Elégie.

“He’s an amazingly skilled arranger”, says Sheku of Parkin, “and he keeps the heart of the pieces while making the most of the instruments. I love mixing the arrangements that complement the pieces of music in their original form, and it’s great to record them in respect of friends and teachers, which makes it more personal. I’m always excited and open to lots of new things and working with new people. I’ve had some amazing experiences with these recordings, and you can hopefully hear the enjoyment from them.”

As you might expect given his album programming, Sheku’s ‘out of hours’ musical tastes are varied. “I listen to a mixture of classical, jazz, reggae, and different kinds of folk music”, he says. “Growing up with music all around me has been really inspiring, and it has kept me grounded and motivated. Now I live with students, and the people below me are also musicians.”

Thinking back to his BBC Young Musician of the Year triumph brings Kanneh-Mason onto a subject close to his heart, musical education. “I think we should have as many young people in music as possible. The Young Musician of the Year is great as it shows people playing to the highest standard. When I did it I found watching people three or four years older than me was really inspiring, and it ultimately gives people the opportunity to do many more things.”

He also notes the importance of after care. “Afterwards there was so much attention, but the BBC really looked after me. It was important to have the right people around me and to be working with the right people. A competition is only good if what comes after is good.”

With time running out, we conclude by discussing his favourite musicians of the moment. “I love Steven Isserlis”, he says. “He’s my favourite cellist to watch…and I also love listening to the violinist Daniel Lozakovich. Martha Argerich is also someone I find really inspiring, I love watching her play the piano.”

This blend of youth and maturity, established and new, is perhaps the most inspiring thing about Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s success. His approach is very inclusive, and his next ventures will be very interesting to chart and appraise. With Elgar reaching the heights of number eight in the album charts so far, the musical world is very open to him right now.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s Elgar album is out now on Decca Classics – it can be purchased here, via Apple Music, or streamed below via Spotify:

Live review – London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle: Stravinsky, Birtwistle & John Adams

London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (above)

Barbican Hall, London
Thursday 2 May 2019

Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments (original version) (1920)
Birtwistle The Shadow of Night (2001)
John Adams Harmonielehre (1985)

Written by Ben Hogwood

These days attending a London Symphony Orchestra concert brings with it a guarantee of intriguing programming and breathtaking musicianship. This one had a real ‘darkness to light’ demeanour, moving from the blacker than black recesses of Sir Harrison Birtwistle to the wide open, sunlit panoramas created by John Adams.

Before that, a composer whose influence could be keenly felt in the music of both composers. Stravinsky made many innovations in pieces other than his celebrated Rite of Spring, and Symphonies of Wind Instruments could certainly be regarded as one of his most original. With the term ‘symphony’ interpreted through its original meaning, the ‘concord of sound’, Stravinsky proceeds to build an innovative one-movement piece that contrasts busy movement with still reflection.

The instrumentation is fascinating, especially in the original version, which uses alto clarinet and alto flute. It explains the simply wonderful sounds made by the 24-piece London Symphony Orchestra wind and brass, the rich chords often baleful and downcast (the piece is a memorial to Debussy) but the faster music sprightly and energetic. A better performance of this piece would be hard to imagine, energetically guided by Sir Simon Rattle.

The music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle continues to split opinion. For this particular listener it is not an easy prospect, and I confess to having developed headaches in previous performances of Earth Dances and Neruda Madrigales, while admiring The Moth Requiem and Silbury Air. I therefore approached The Shadows of Night with some trepidation, but found it an ultimately rewarding score, its heavy darkness punctuated by relieving solos of glittering light from bassoon and E-flat clarinet, where Chi Yu Mo was simply superb.

Birtwistle’s colouring of the lower regions of the string orchestra is particularly fine, and the first five minutes were a sonic wonder to behold, as though the Barbican had opened up into a monstrous cave. Then the piccolo stated a John Dowland song, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, after which the piece lumbered through a number of sections with gathering tension. Once this was released the clarinet worked its magic, and Rattle set us down in a heap for the interval.

Following Birtwistle with John Adams was like throwing open the curtains to greet a sun-splashed new morning, and the LSO sparkled with what seemed to be new-found freedom. Harmonielehre delights in tonality, politely rejecting Schoenberg’s treatise of the same name to power forward with terrific rhythmic impetus and walls of consonant harmonies. Within themselves these create some exquisite dissonance and colour, with the brass and percussion in particular shining through. Rattle has this piece under his skin, having recorded it with the CBSO in 1993, and if anything his interpretation has gained speed and electricity. as the composer himself noted on Twitter!

The audience were swept up in the cumulative power and energy of the piece, particularly in its closing section, which carried all before it. Of all the prominent exponents of minimalism, Adams has the most effective orchestral writing, and his clear signposts of influences (Sibelius Symphony no.4, Stravinsky, Debussy and even Britten) were all used to original effect. It was an invigorating close to a terrific concert.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

You can read Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s thoughts on The Shadow of Night at his publisher Boosey & Hawkes’ website, and John Adams talks about Harmonielehre on his own webpage

Live review – Leonidas Kavakos, LSO / Sir Simon Rattle: Brahms, Debussy & Enescu

Leonidas Kavakos (violin, above), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (below)

Barbican Hall, London
Sunday 16 December 2018

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major Op.77 (1878)
Debussy Images (1905-12)
Enescu Romanian Rhapsody no.1 in A major Op.11/1 (1901)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra tonight continued their ‘Roots & Origins’ project with a diverse programme ranging from the innate classicism of Brahms, through the refracted (post-)impressionism of Debussy then on to the unaffected nationalism of Enescu.

A change in the running order saw a first half devoted to Brahms’s Violin Concerto – easy to pigeon-hole as archetypally Austro-German, though fairly permeated with elements derived from popular and traditional sources. Nor did Leonidas Kavakos deliver a bland or uneventful account, maintaining palpable momentum across the expansive initial movement that carried through to an uncommonly perceptive take on Joachim’s monumental cadenza, followed by an easeful coda in which the symbiosis between soloist and orchestra was at its most tangible.

While there was no undue lingering in the Adagio, Kavakos brought out its gentle eloquence in full measure – abetted by playing of burnished warmth from the LSO’s woodwind, though there was no lack of agitation in the contrasting central section. The Hungarian overtones of the finale were then given full rein, Kavakos projecting the music’s rhythmic drive as surely as he propelled the coda to its effervescent close. Throughout this performance, Rattle was at one with his soloist in a work he has no doubt given many times during the past four decades.

A dynamic and vividly projected reading, then, from Kavakos (very different from the inward and almost self-communing one he gave during last year’s Enescu Festival), who returned for a predictably scintillating account of the Les furies finale from Ysaÿe’s Second Solo Sonata.


Debussy’s Images has long been a Rattle staple: his running-order differs from that published – though there is arguably no ideal sequence for such a contrasting assemblage. Certainly, the fatefully understated Gigues makes a plausible opening, its fugitive gestures and searching ambivalence more an evocation of the composer in his last years as of any English environs. Rondes de printemps is the positive corollary, its vernal freshness and simmering energy an indication of that renewal in French culture made explicit by the late sonatas. In both pieces, Rattle secured a superfine response from the LSO and if characterization in Ibéria was less acute, this may have been owing to the music’s broad-brush Spanish quality than to any lack of insight. Not in doubt was the cohesion that Rattle drew from this composite work overall.

Cohesion was also key to his performance of Enescu’s First Romanian Rhapsody. More than a medley of popular tunes, its integration is that of a borne symphonist and Rattle responded accordingly as he built momentum across the suave initial episodes before cutting loose with the bacchanal. The degree of detail lost was outweighed by the visceral excitement that held good through to the coda. A piece associated with Rattle since the early 1980s, and of which the LSO gave a memorable televised reading a decade earlier, ended this concert in fine style.

The question remains why Rattle has never added further Enescu to his repertoire. Perhaps he considers him lesser to Szymanowski, whom he has championed assiduously? Pieces such as the Second Symphony, Third Suite and Vox Maris cry out for his advocacy. Maybe one day?

For more information on forthcoming concerts from the London Symphony Orchestra in 2019, you can visit their website. Meanwhile you can enjoy Kavakos in a recent performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto below: