Mahler Symphony No.4, Three Choirs Festival, Hereford Cathedral 24/7/2022 4**** David Gray & Paul Gray

On another glorious summer’s evening of music in Hereford Cathedral as part of this year’s 294th Three Choirs Festival the Philharmonia Orchestra, under the mostly assured baton of Finnish conductor Emilia Hoving, and with the outstanding soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, gave fine performances of a new premiere by Rolf Martinsson, an orchestral song cycle, Ich denke Dein, and the ever fresh Fourth Symphony by Gustav Mahler.

Martinsson’s cycle sets five poems; two by Goethe, two by Rilke and one by Eichendorff. This was a good choice to pair with the Mahler, and the poetic sentiments are not that far removed from the world of Mahler’s imaginings.

The style of the cycle has hints of the orchestral sound of Richard Strauss, together with heavy hints of (perhaps) German film music. In the first song there is some lovely colouration, with an ecstatic outpouring at its climax, although one wondered if the brass could have been better blended?

The use of the solo violin in the fourth song seems to have stepped straight out of the score of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, and the use of interrupted cadences in the last song was pure Wagner. There even seems to be a direct musical quote from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. All of this is no bad thing, and one felt totally swept up and carried aloft by almost overwhelming waves of powerful music. Great stuff!

The undoubted star of the evening was soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn. My word, what a ravishing, rich and full-bodied voice with a soaring top. The song cycle was a wonderful vehicle for this singer to really shine and show the extraordinary abilities of her voice. How lovely, too, to have a female conductor, Emilia Hoving; a pairing clearly made in heaven.

And speaking of heaven, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony concludes with a song describing a child’s vision of heaven. Indeed, the whole symphony can be thought of as a true symbiosis of song and symphony, in that it takes many musical themes and ideas from a number of Maher’s songs.

Llewellyn, Hoving and the Philharmonia were in perfect form in this final movement. They managed to convey a simplicity, naivety and intimacy in what was a most affecting end to this radiant symphony; and to do so with a huge orchestra in the equally huge space of Hereford Cathedral. The silence at the end was testimony to the success of this performance; it was as though time and space had somehow stood still.

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