| Southbank Centre: Royal Festival Hall, London
Maazel: Mahler Cycle 2011
|Southbank Centre: Royal Festival Hall, London, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX, United Kingdom|
Thursday 5-May-11 07:30pm
Maazel: Mahler Cycle 2011
‘A great performance of the Fifth is a transforming experience’, Herbert von Karajan once said. A work of huge emotional scope, it opens with a funereal trumpet solo and ends in a triumphant, exuberant finale. The serene poise of the famous Adagietto at its heart is anticipated in Urlicht, a beautiful setting of the religious folk-poem ‘Primeval Light’, one of six song settings from the collection of German folk poetry Des Knaben Wunderhorn also performed this evening.
The songs of Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Youth’s Magic Horn") form the basis for so much of Mahler’s music that it pays to hear some of them alongside a symphony (in the case the well-known Fifth Symphony, in the latest of the Philharmonia/Maazel collaborations). The performances of six of the songs by Sarah Connolly and Matthias Goerne gave a clear idea of the emotional power that they contain. Sarah Connolly started with Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, Rheinlegendchen, and Das irdische Leben with Matthias Goerne following with Urlicht, Revelge, and Der Tamboursg’sell. The contrast between the two singers was telling and, in my view, very effective. Sarah Connolly left Mahler to speak, her beautifully rich and dark tone bringing exactly the right colours to songs as varied as the ghostly ‘Where the fair trumpets sound’, the tongue in cheek Rhine Legend and Earthly life, with its echoes of those mysterious other-worldly reveries that Mahler symphonies so frequently delve into. Matthias Goerne could have been on the operatic stage, so physical was his performance. Brilliant as it was, I was glad that we only had three songs from him – all six would have been too much. Starting with Primal Light, the song that forms the penultimate movement of the second symphony, he exposed the emotional depth of the music, communicating that directly with the audience. The contrast between his final two songs was revealing, the sinister tale of a ghostly regiment marching through the streets leading into the pathetic tale of the drummer boy saying his farewells as he makes his way to the scaffold to be executed for desertion. Curiously, Goerne didn’t follow Mahler’s instructions to sing ‘with horror’, ‘shrieking’ and finally, ‘with a broken voice’, retaining a controlled tone throughout.
The mood was perfectly set for the fifth symphony, a work that takes the listener through every possible emotion from the bleak opening march with its contrasted mournful second theme to the resolutely positive finale with one of the most glorious moments of musical resolution in the whole repertoire – the massive D major chorale. Mahler, along with Bruckner and Wagner, is often seen as ‘man’s music,’ and the audience certainly did include rather more males than most classical music concerts – there were even queues for the Gents. I am not sure what attracts men to such composers but wonder if it is something to do with the sheer power or length – the marathon mentality. The sheer aggression of much of Mahler’s music could also be a clue – but then we get the Adagietto (which leapt into the wider public consciousness through Visconti’s film, Death in Venice). This symphony was written at a time when Mahler was reaching the heights of his financial success, having just built an impressive mansion and met his future wife – but there were also severe health problems, leading him to within an hour of death through a massive haemorrhage. This is a difficult work to control. Lorin Maazel wields his baton like a rod of iron, giving clear and precise direction – exactly what is needed during the first two (linked) movements, when momentum is all. But, surprisingly, he allowed the Adagietto to wallow. The speed of this movement is controversial, but the current trend seems to be away from these slow speeds. There were no such issue in the last movement, with its echoes of the Adagietto. Maazel built up the enormous tension until the full brass blazed in with the life affirming conclusion – a glorious sound, winding up a Mahler symphony when the audience would have left the hall smiling rather than looking for the nearest lamppost.
The Philharmonia Orchestra were on blinding form, with notable contributions from Mark David, trumpet, and Nigel Black, horn. I was also impressed with Katy Woolley’s horn playing during the Wunderhorn settings.