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Reviews

03 Nov 2016

Christian Gerhaher sings Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in Berlin

As Bernard Haitink’s bout with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has finally been resolved, we in Amsterdam still have to wait for his return to his former homebase till this coming February. So I was thrilled to hear him in Berlin conduct Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with the Berliner Philharmoniker. It turned out to be historical evening. Not just because of attendance by the Swedish King and Queen, but also because baritone Christian Gerhaher performed the by Mahler preferred alto role, in an extraordinarily deep “Der Abschied”. Haitink did not disappoint in this spectacular affair.

A review by David Pinedo

Above: Bernard Haitink.

Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus.

 

The evening opened with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Although I had hoped to be swept off my feet by the flight in Schubert’s melodies, Haitink’s determined and deliberate style instead brought all the layers in the work constructing an extraordinary, sonorous depth. He produced such captivating intensity, the concertmaster and his Berliner musicians were riffing like rock stars.

Haitink is still one of the best out there, but his fragility has given his recent performances more transparency exposing precious new details, rather than producing a sweeping, cohesive momentum. Part of me misses his former command and energy.

I marvelled at the synergy. Several times, the seated Haitink’s mere presence with his most subtle of directions clearly inspired the Berliners. His deliberate, succinct conducting created a rich tapestry of Schubert’s wonderful melodies as the BPO performed with utmost dedication to their Maestro. While at first I thought it seemed a bit slow, in the end the simmering build up paid off with a sublime climax.

With the same attention to detail and deliberate tempi, Haitink led the BPO that performed Mahler with a zealous commitment. His age showing a bit as he conducted from a seated position. The orchestra, sharply in tune with his minimal conducting, thrilled in Mahler’s temperaments. The piccolo at the end of “Von der Jugend” or the triangle in “Von der Schönheit” popped with great effect. How impressive Haitink generated such superlative sound with such little direction.

I have to confess, I was not aware that Mahler had orchestrated his closest work to opera with the option of a baritone instead of alto. A very tricky endeavour especially during “Der Abschied”. There aren’t many men that can pull it off. Tonight Gerhaher certainly demonstrated the virtues of this format as he realised a profoundly human character. His gravitas and richly nuanced phrasing gave it a deep melancholy. Gerhaher generated a very dour ambience, missing the lighter nuances. This last movement felt earthly, anchored in human sorrow. For all of Gerhaher’s qualities, he inhibited the fragile ascension into Mahler’s elevating catharsis. I prefer the softness of a female voice in this particularly ameliorating role.

Christian Elsner filled the tenor role with a particular Bohemian charm. With closed eyes, visibly moved by the Berliner’s music and Gerhaher’s soulful tone, he would sway back and forth with closed eyes. The longer Elsner’s seeming theatricality continued, the more I realised he was being authentic. As the drunk in love in the “Der Trunkene im Frühling”, he particularly impressed. Gerhaher’s almost bleak concentration during Elsner’s singing formed a striking contrast to Elsner’s obvious appreciation.

When returning for the applause, instead of walking directly to the front Haitink walked up the stairs to the musicians (as he would at the Concertgebouw). He demonstratively tapped his forehead with the palm of his hand and redirected himself to the podium. Where he deservedly but with his usual timidity accepted the audience ovation. His fragility notwithstanding, this octogenarian certainly created a high point of the season.

David Pinedo

Christian Elsner (tenor) Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Bernard Haitink (conductor), Berliner Philharmoniker.

7th October 2016. Berlin Philharmonie.

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