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Gustav Mahler c. 1907 [Color enhanced photo by Armando Bravi courtesy of International Gustav Mahler Society]
30 Sep 2011

Mahler, Royal Festival Hall

My response to much of this and last year’s Mahler anniversary bonanza has been to stay away: certainly not out of antipathy, nor out of boredom, nor on account of any other negative reaction to the music of a composer whom I admire as greatly as ever, but simply because there are too many unnecessary performances of that music on offer.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no.10: I. ‘Adagio’; Das Lied von der Erde

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano); Stefan Vinke (tenor); Philharmonia Orchestra. Conductor: Lorin Maazel. Royal Festival Hall, London, Thursday, 29 September 2011.

Above: Gustav Mahler c. 1907 [Color enhanced photo by Armando Bravi courtesy of International Gustav Mahler Society]


Whilst always interested in hearing great or potentially interesting Mahlerians, I simply have no need to hear Maestro x conduct orchestra y in a run-of-the-mill Mahler Symphony no.z. Hearing the symphonies (alas, bar the Tenth) and song-cycles (bar some of the Wunderhorn songs) from the Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, and Pierre Boulez, in Berlin, in April 2007, was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my musical life. When the Philharmonia announced its 2011 Mahler cycle under Lorin Maazel, my enthusiasm was tempered. Nevertheless, I have heard good things, from a variety of sources, many of which I respect greatly, as the cycle has progressed. It therefore seemed time to experience Maazel’s Mahler for myself. On this showing, I am afraid, it emerges as barely preferable to that of Valery Gergiev, the miscast conductor of another (!) recent London cycle.

The opening work, or rather part of a work, the ‘Adagio’ from the Tenth Symphony was as unbearable as Gergiev’s, albeit in rather different ways. At least Gergiev rushed through his equally micromanaged account; I wonder whether anyone has taken this movement so slowly, whether individually or as part of a complete symphonic performance. Maazel’s reading actually opened promisingly, the viola line tremulous in a good way, suggestive, if we dare follow so Romantically autobiographical a route, of the failing heartbeat more often associated, dubiously or otherwise, with the Ninth Symphony. Thereafter, torpor set in. I have nothing against a daringly slow tempo, but Maazel proved quite incapable of sustaining it, at least meaningfully. Whatever the truth of the minutes on the clock, the music sounded as if it were taken at half-speed, and worse still, a phrase at a time, often with meaningless pauses inserted between those phrases. Worse still again, almost every subdivision of every beat was visibly and, more to the point, audibly, conducted, sapping Mahler’s music of any life. The music collapsed, less under its own (undeniable) weight than under the conductor’s shallowness: there was not even the slightest suggestion that it meant anything, whether or no that ‘anything’ might be put into words. It was, I am sad to say, inert and insufferable. Much of Mahler’s music might well be understood as haunted by death, but that means nothing without the impulse to life, here utterly lacking. Oh for the late Kurt Sanderling, Conductor Emeritus of the Philharmonia…

Maazel.gifLorin Maazel

Das Lied von der Erde was better, though mostly on account of the soloists’ contribution. The first movement, ‘Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde’, did not initially show Stefan Vinke at his best. Intonational problems compounded the cruel, almost insupportable, challenge Mahler throws at the tenor in this song. However, Vinke improved considerably in the second and third stanzas, the latter evincing the heroism of a Siegfried – or rather the forlorn Mahlerian effort to return to a Siegfried, to which effort’s failure the only answer is to fill the wine glass and to drink oneself into oblivion. If only the conducting had not been so regimented; for Maazel, alas, exchanged torpor for brash brutality, the unifying feature being lifelessness born at least in part of that direction of every last subdivision of a beat. Even Sir Simon Rattle at his most tediously ‘interventionist’ rarely conducts quite so fussily. Once again, I longed for Sanderling, still more so for Bruno Walter, cited by Julian Johnson in his excellent pre-performance talk.

The frozen quality, both temporal and sonorous, of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ suited Maazel better, if only by default. Alice Coote surmounted a viral infection in a fine Lieder-singer’s account, equally attentive to words and line. The words ‘Mein Herz ist müde’ were imploring, touching almost beyond words. There was a true sense of this as a song, in which Maazel, mercifully, acted more as ‘accompanist’ than ‘conductor’. (I was again struck by the parallel with Rattle, who often emerges preferably when paying heed to a soloist.) ‘Von der Jugend’ emerged mechanically, but at least there was a Coppelia-sort of life to it, absent entirely during the first part of the concert. Vinke was on good form, by turns playful and nostalgic, doubtless benefiting from the reality that this song is much less of a vocal struggle. If both ‘Von der Jugend’ and ‘Von der Schönheit’ ultimately veered towards the neo-classical, failing to yield as Mahler should, then one could at least appreciate the pointing of the chinoiserie. Meaning in the latter, it must be said, seemed to hail entirely from Coote, not from the podium. Vinke once again showed some strain at the outset of ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’, but settled reasonably into Siegfried-vein: his was not the subtlest reading, but it was for the most part well enough delivered. Leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay provided a delectable solo, but Maazel never proved more than efficient.

It was, then, something of a surprise to hear the baleful opening chords of ‘Der Abschied’ so resounding in menace, movingly responded to by Christopher Cowie’s excellent oboe solo. The problem was that this seemed to have come from nowhere. Mahler’s extraordinary finale needs to be approached, not implanted. One could draw solace that the music, at least to start with, moved fluently, but it rarely moved. Coote suffered a few moments where strain told, not least in a somewhat sour rendition of the words ‘die müden Menschen gehn heimwärts, um im Schlaf vergessnes Glück’, but more important were her palpable sincerity and textual understanding. The final blue light in the distance truly sounded as if it were such in eternity. With the best will in the world, however, it could not be said that her sensibility, even when ailing, was matched by Maazel, despite some fine woodwind playing (and an unfortunate, albeit brief, duet between flute and telephone). The laboured quality of the purely orchestral passages told their own story. Why, I could not help but wonder, did the Philharmonia not offer its Mahler cycle to a musician or to musicians better suited to the task?

Mark Berry

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