During a freezing evening at the heart of Norwich, the audience at the Norwich Theatre Royal was treated to the symphonies of the German Romantic composer and pianist Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) combined with the melodies of two other ‘musical pioneers’: Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), and English composer, conductor, and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-76). The orchestra was conducted by Sir Mark Elder, who, among other things, was the Music Director of English National Opera from 1979 to 1993, and is currently the Music Director of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. The Britten Sinfonia leader, Jacqueline Shave, was also on stage, moving the audience with her sheer energy and seemingly effortless performance.
The concert was truly a story-telling event, with three parts that worked together in a carefully coordinated dance to produce a strikingly coherent whole. First was the Suite on English Folk Tunes, Op. 90 by Britten, which allowed the imagination to wander, invoking images of Scottish mountains and fairy-tale forests, oscillating between moments of surprising intensity, and others that brought with them a sense of calm. This was followed by Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, during which the enthralling Irish Mezzo Soprano Paula Murrihy also joined the ensemble on stage, entirely captivating the audience with her ethereal voice and gripping presence.
It was Sir Mark Elder himself who introduced each segment to the audience. During the last part, before the orchestra performed Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73, he informed us that Brahms’ wanted to revive symphony, and that Wagner thought symphony was dead and looked down upon Brahms’ attempts, viewing them as entirely futile. He explained that this symphony does not need a vast number of instruments, and that it is not a monumental piece, despite it often being over-staged. Rather, it is supposed to be ‘drier’: it is in that toned-down state that it’s underlying sense of the turmoil, which defines the narrative emotion of the piece, can be interpreted and heard anew.
Indeed, the room was bursting with the sense of urgency and intensity that was generated by the music, and the energy of the orchestra. The violinists were sitting at the edge of their chairs, and soon enough, so were we. At the final tune, the crowd erupted into roaring claps as the piece reached its majestic end, which offered a sense of release after moments of feverish intensity and sheer musical force.