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Review of The Mahler Players concert at Strathpeffer Pavilion performing the world premiere of Matthew King's Richard Wagner In Venice: A Symphony

By Margaret Chrystall

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Matthew King's Richard Wagner In Venice: A Symphony

The Mahler Players at Strathpeffer Pavilion


Is 'special' a special enough word to describe last Saturday’s return of the Mahler Players with a world premiere in the graceful dimensions of Strathpeffer Pavilion, 18 months after they had last played anywhere?

The night had a huge buzz and felt like the most exciting place to be after lockdown’s interminable live music drought.

The Mahler Players at Strathpeffer Pavilion. Picture: Sam Leakey
The Mahler Players at Strathpeffer Pavilion. Picture: Sam Leakey

This was emphasised when Matthew King, the composer of the night’s main piece, Richard Wagner In Venice: A Symphony, opened his illuminating introduction on how he had composed it by reminding us: “You are the first people in the world to hear these pieces.”

As ever with Tomas Leakey and his players, the surrounding programme prepared and set the scene, ending the night with a reminder of the symphonic world that had come before, from Mozart, in his late Symphony No 40 in G minor written in 1788.

The night opened with Wagner’s one-off, the 1870 Siegfried Idyll, which he had initially considered naming Symphony.

Both pieces echoed and also contrasted with the main event.

Siegfried Idyll set the scene with what we were later to learn were some similar forms, techniques and the mix of instruments to the Wagner sketches in the new/old King.

The Idyll sounded curiously modern and fluid with washes of sound created in conversation between the instruments, oboe and flute often contrasting with the rumble of cellos and basses you could feel resonating around the hall.

For me, this seemed to be a very different Wagner to the one I had last heard from the Mahler Players.

Then, admittedly, it was an opera, a very different beast complete with top solo voices. But there didn’t seem in the Idyll to be much trace of the world of that first act of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) and its urgent scrubbing strings, blasts of wind instruments, roaring drums, sense of threat and impending momentousness.

Later, thanks to the programme notes, we were reminded that the Idyll’s now older Wagner had new preoccupations.

You discovered that Idyll was a new intimate symphonic piece and that he had already said ‘why do four movements in a symphony? It has been done’ and “symphonies should be personal … where melodies merged like leit motivs [a short musical phrase associated with something or someone]”.

Idyll also saw Wagner expressing his personal feelings, his love for his wife Cosima, presenting the work to her at Christmas 1870 bringing musicians to their home, Triebschen in Switzerland, to play when she woke in the morning.

Matthew King wove into his guide to the music of his symphony, the story of Wagner’s later years and his mature fascination with attempting to reinvent the symphony.

The composer played each of Wagner’s sketches, explaining what he had done to build them into the final piece he had composed, with the orchestra playing each section to complete the illustration for the audience.

It was probably one of the greatest luxuries we could have had, preparing us for the piece to come and things to listen out for, now we understood so much more about what we would be hearing.

Matthew King likened the process of uniting Wagner’s sketches with his new work, as “speculative musical archaeology” to create a finished piece “that plays with history” and “tries to imagine something that never happened”.

As one of the audience officially hearing the premiere for the first time, it felt exciting to hear the “dissonant climax leading to a tumbling effect” of notes. Or catch the “questioning motif” on oboe near the start that Matthew King identified in his introduction (and programme notes), then to recognise it for yourself, repeated regularly throughout on trumpet and oboe.

Matthew King also described how he had closed the piece with motifs from Wagner’s own operas and a bassline from Wagner’s father-in-law Lizst and the piece he wrote as a premonition of Wagner’s death in Venice, Lugubrious Gondola.

It fired the imagination as the piece ended – Wagner’s wife Cosima with her late husband in a funeral gondola.

In a way, the repeated question of the music which ends in a minor key, as Matthew King’s note informed us, returned.

If Wagner had lived, would he have written the 12 further symphonies he had vowed to, or fully reinvented the symphony?

Composer Matthew King gives a hug to Mahler Players conductor Tomas Leakey as Richard Wagner In Venice: A Symphony is played for the first time in public.
Composer Matthew King gives a hug to Mahler Players conductor Tomas Leakey as Richard Wagner In Venice: A Symphony is played for the first time in public.

The performance ensured the reimagined sketches, spun into a moving and lyrical triumph of musical imagination, was given the ultimate dream debut in the hands of the Mahler Players. And as the final notes died away, composer Matthew King leapt from his seat with delight to embrace conductor Tomas Leakey.

Like the King, the night’s final offering, Mozart’s Symphony No 40, also ended on a minor key – and was a reminder of the classical form of the symphony Wagner had left behind. Majestic and intense in four movements with the Molto allegro’s well-known first theme, it was written in two months with the composer’s two other late symphonies, No 39 and 41 – known as the Jupiter.

The Mahler Players. Picture: Sam Leakey
The Mahler Players. Picture: Sam Leakey

The concert continued the journey the Mahler Players have been escorting us on from their beginnings, from Mahler to Wagner, also commissioning and premiering new work, and now, on to the next phase, Mozart's late symphonies.

The next concerts will feature those last three Mozart symphonies, last Saturday’s contrasting finale, Symphony No 40, a tantalising invitation for that next leg –­ two December concerts.

The night also represented a coming of age for the Mahler Players, perhaps.

The chamber orchestra founded in 2013 is made up musicians who come together to enjoy playing “at a high level”, as conductor Tomas Leakey mentions in their recent YouTube video introducing the orchestra.

Their passion and precision adds to the experience as a listener – one detail, their dynamics are a tribute to responsive musicianship, plus, on a bigger scale, the energy and commitment they show to shine a light on often less-frequently programmed music as a chamber orchestra in small venues, punching above their weight – sharing it with their loyal Highland audience.

Presenting their first CD, officially out on October 22 and recorded at Strathpeffer Pavilion back in June, was made possible by funding secured from a range of sources including the National Lottery through Creative Scotland.

It features the first recording of Matthew King’s symphony, partnered with Siegfried Idyll.

The Mahler Players debut recording on CD.
The Mahler Players debut recording on CD.

The cover is a painting by Claude Monet, San Giorgio Maggiore by Twilight, though the intense orange sky is maybe also a reminder of Wagner’s original title for Siegfried Idyll – Triebschen Idyll With Fidi's [son Siegfried’s] Birdsong And The Orange Sunrise…

And the black silhouette of the San Giorgio Maggiore on that island is an unmistakably Venetian scene, apt when you remember Wagner’s death in the city, marked at the close of Matthew King’s symphony, and, of course, the city's mention in the title itself.

Inside, the CD captures the Mahler Players giving a landmark performance. And that is more than special too. MC

More info:www.mahlerplayers.co.uk Follow @mahlerplayers on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook: MahlerPlayers

Details of how you can get the CD.
Details of how you can get the CD.

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