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Gustav Mahler
14 Aug 2011

Prom 32: Brahms and Mahler

Brahms’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Das klagende Lied did not seem to be the most obvious bedfellows — there has been some rather peculiar programming at this year’s Proms — and even after further consideration, the only real connection I could muster was that they were written at the same time: the concerto in 1878, the cantata between 1878 and 1880.

Brahms — Violin Concerto in D major, op.77; Mahler — Das klagende Lied (original version)

Christian Tetzlaff (violin); Melanie Diener (soprano); Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano); Stuart Skelton (tenor); Christopher Purves (baritone); Theodore Beeny, Augustus Bell, Timothy Fairbairn, Thomas Featherstonehaugh, Matthew Lloyd-Wilson, Oluwatimilehin Otudeko (trebles); BBC Singers (chorus master: Stephen Jackson); Edward Gardner (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 7 August 2011.

Above: Gustav Mahler


At any rate, Christian Teztlaff gave a fine account of the former, though he was not always matched by Edward Gardner’s conducting, which was mostly unobjectionable — more than can be said for many examples — but not especially rich in insight. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was generally on good, if not infallible, form, its first movement contribution more lyrical than stentorian. (A mobile telephone provided unwanted interruption during the first exposition.) Teztlaff’s solo performance was intensely committed, fiercely dramatic, and unwavering in intonation, the cadenza (Joachim’s) providing both intimacy and direction. The opening of the ensuing coda proved splendidly autumnal, though its conclusion was arguably rushed by Gardner. Unwelcome applause intervened prior to a slow movement in which Tetzlaff generally acted as first among serenade-like equals, the spirit of Mozart undeniably present. Though the opening woodwind solos, especially Richard Simpson’s oboe, were well taken, there was a sense that they might have sung still more freely had Gardner moulded them less. That is a minor criticism, however, for Tetzlaff’s sweet-toned rendition ensured that the heart strings would be tugged where necessary, without the slightest hint of undue manipulation. Gardner, to his credit, held the audience at bay during the brief pause before the finale. Rhythms were well pointed here, though there were times when the orchestra felt a little driven. Tetzlaff’s musicianship and virtuosity were never in doubt; it would be good to hear him in this concerto with a more experienced Brahmsian, such as Bernard Haitink, Kurt Masur, or Sir Colin Davis. If anything even better was his poised, thoughtful, richly expressive encore account of the Gavotte en rondeau from Bach’s E major Partita. Not for the first time, the smallest of forces seemed to project better than a typical symphony orchestra in the problematic acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall.

Gardner fashioned a performance of Das klagende Lied that was more ‘operatic’ than benefits the music. Or, to put it another way, it concentrated on highlighting of certain textual ‘incident’ and artificially whipped-up excitement in a stop-and-start way that recalled Sir Georg Solti (though I am not sure whether Solti conducted this particular work). At least, though, we could hear vibrato-laden strings, a relief after the horror tales of Sir Roger Norrington’s recent Ninth Symphony. The orchestral introduction to ‘Waldmärchen’ was somewhat hesitant at first, and then, as if to compensate, was fiercely driven. It eventually settled, but the movement as a whole did not. The second stanza, though well presented vocally and orchestrally, simply dragged, Gardner seemingly finding it impossible to alight upon a just tempo. Uncertain brass slightly marred the brothers’ entry into the forest, though tenor Stuart Skelton gave a good sense of Mahler as balladeer. When, during the final two stanzas, Mahler’s Wagnerian inheritance — Gardner seemed previously to have done his utmost to make the composer sound closer to Verdi! — inevitably came to the fore, whether through harmony, instrumentation, and vocal line, it was almost a sense of too little, too late. Anna Larsson, a late substitution for Ekaterina Gubanova, nevertheless proved a wonderfully rich mezzo soloist.

Intimations of the First and Second Symphonies in the introduction to ‘Der Spielmann’ came across clearly — how could they not? — but, in Gardner’s hands, there was something unnecessarily four-square to the phrasing. Christopher Purves, however, proved plaintive indeed upon the words ‘Dort ist’s so lind und voll von Duft, als ging ein Weinen durch die Luft!’, even though the pacing now had become unduly distended. The first entry of the off-stage band sounded splendid in itself, but Gardner struggled — and failed — to keep it together with the ‘main’ orchestra. There were, happily, no such problems later on. Tempi here and in the concluding ‘Hochzeitsstück’ veered towards the comatose, however, interspersed with ‘compensating’ rushed passages. What should sound wide-eyed in its staggering youthful ambition and accomplishment tended merely to sprawl. (Applause again intervened between the second and third movements.) Choral diction was very good throughout, though it would have done no harm to have had a larger chorus. Treble voices touched in their fragility, helping to prove once again that it is this original version of Das klagende Lied that has the superior claim to performance. I cannot begin to understand David Matthews’s programme note claim that the revised two-part version is ‘incontrovertibly tighter and arguably more effective’. If the effect were somewhat sprawling, that was the fault of Gardner’s performance, not of the work itself, which is a much better piece than this evening’s audience may have been led to believe.

Mark Berry

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