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Elisabeth Kulman, Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican Hall
10 Nov 2017

Elisabeth Kulman sings Mahler's Rückert-Lieder with Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia

Austrian singer Elisabeth Kulman has had an interesting career trajectory. She began her singing life as a soprano but later shifted to mezzo-soprano/contralto territory. Esteemed on the operatic stage, she relinquished the theatre for the concert platform in 2015, following an accident while rehearsing Tristan.

Elisabeth Kulman, Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Elisabeth Kulman, with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Sir Mark Elder

Photo credit: Mark Allan

 

Though this accident was ‘freakish’ (she suffered a blow to the throat), the consequences led Kulman to reassess the opera singer’s professional, personal and financial lot: she launched a campaign against the practice of not paying singers for rehearsals - meaning that illness or indisposition could result in a singer being financially unrewarded for their hard work and even, taking in accommodation and other costs, potentially facing substantial losses - and established Art But Fair, a lobby group for fair play. Kulman declared, ‘The opera business is an enormous enterprise. The individual’s room to move is relatively small. As an artist what concerns me is individual creativity, personal expression, individuality. Personally, I have discovered for myself that I am best able to develop my creative potential when I am able to work according to my own rules and not have to subordinate myself to other structures. It is not, therefore, a general criticism of the current opera business but rather recognition of the incompatibility of my personality’s makeup.’ ( translation from the German by Martin Snell).

Prior to this concert given by the Britten Sinfonia under Sir Mark Elder, at the Barbican Hall, I had not previously heard Kulman perform, in opera or concert. Her performance of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder - a work which she presented with Elder and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in September 2016 - was immaculate: her tone was even across the registers, the phrases were gracefully sculptured, the tone suggested the pliant plushness of the softest velvet. Refinement, delicacy, intimacy were the words which most readily sprang to mind.

But, despite the vocal polish and allure, this was a very ‘polite’ performance. I missed the range of emotions - which might be communicated through a varying timbre, for example - in the sequence of Rückert poems (not really a ‘cycle’), and Kulman did not communicate a sense of her personal connection to the texts, though the diction was pristine. There was peace but not passion: ‘Um Mitternacht’ (At midnight) surely traverses wider emotional terrain.

That said, Sir Mark Elder did exquisitely balance the intimate conversations within the small chamber orchestra, as at the start of ‘Blicker mir nicht in die Lieder!’ (Do not look into my songs!) when muted cello, clarinet oscillations, and flickering oboe and flute acciaccaturas formed a rarefied interplay, and the prominent, lyrical horn beautifully complemented the vocal line. ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (I breathed a gentle fragrance) floated on an airy bed of spare viola and violin meandering which allowed the woodwind motifs to sweetly make their mark, and the harp and celeste offered an ethereal closing flourish, evoking the heady piquancy of the ‘fragrance of line’.

Muted strings and the low-lying vocal line evoked a calm acceptance which might have shimmered with greater potential intensity at the start of ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (I am lost to the world). Kulman seemed to add vocal weight and fullness, though, to ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ (If you love for beauty), as if reaching out from a world of quiet intimacy. But, ‘Um Mitternacht’ (At midnight) needed to scale more glistening vocal heights, to provide a counter-weight for the stirring bassoon contributions, the deliciously dark chromatic tuba and horn descents, and the heart-stirring rumbles of tuba, double bassoon and timpani towards the close. Kulman seemed oddly impassive amid such orchestral frissons: there was undeniable vocal beauty and taste, but where was the ardour, or even the animation?

This concert marked the start of a four-year project during which Elder and the Britten Sinfonia will explore the symphonies of Johannes Brahms (though, strictly, the opening of this series took place the previous evening in Norwich); alongside a Brahms symphony, a song-cycle by Mahler and a work by a British composer will throw Brahms’ ‘sound-world’ - which, in a podcast on the Britten Sinfonia website, Elder describes as warm but not thick, lithe but not bombastically heroic - into relief.

The second half of the concert thus comprised Brahms’ First Symphony, which Elder has not previously conducted. This was a delicate reading which foregrounded the woodwinds’ soothing, pure lyricism and subtle expressive gestures and in which the strings (at 10, 10, 8, 8, 4, perhaps not exactly ‘Classical’ in dimension) played with judicious use of vibrato and thoughtful phrasing. Indeed, there was a prevailing sense of ‘care’ and consideration, as Elder moved from a slightly unsettled first movement, through the contemplative middle movements, to well-judged ‘arrival’ and ‘resolution’ in the concluding, Allegro no troppo, ma con brio. There was an exciting and uplifting sense of joy in the final movement without the sound ever becoming self-indulgently or weightily pompous; and, one could sense the players’ intellectual and emotional engagement with the arguments that they were being asked to consider, explore and articulate.

Elder described (in the aforementioned podcast) the first half of the programme as a ‘Mahler sandwich’, and the concert began with Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of the second movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony, titled What the Wild Flowers Tell Me. Britten essentially reduced the extension orchestration of the original to a delicate chamber-like dialogue. In this performance, lyricism was complemented by rhythmic alertness, but the overall effect was one of restraint and Elder did not really establish a strong musical mien - though perhaps this is because this single emblem of Mahler’s monumental, magnificent work feels a little ‘adrift’ from its symphonic moorings.

As someone who believes that anything composed by Gerald Finzi is worth hearing, I was pleased to have the opportunity to enjoy the composer’s orchestral elegy, The Fall of the Leaf, written - like so many of Finzi’s works - over a period of many years, and first published in piano-duet form. Finzi’s close friend, composer Howard Ferguson, developed Finzi’s orchestral drafts, completing the ‘gaps’ left within the basic architectural form. Characteristically, Finzi communicates a restrained nostalgia and a melancholic poignancy that is at once lovely in its tenderness and heart-rending in its pathos. The initial flute solo was wonderfully pure - the expressiveness was equalled by the oboe’s subsequent dolefulness - but from these clean beginnings Elder drew ever greater warmth and soul. Despite my sympathetic leanings, I was not entirely convinced that the work has a structural ‘direction’, but the Britten Sinfonia injected colour - rich brass, shining cymbals - and rhythmic athleticism, through displacement and emphatic stresses. A heavy sadness lingered after the final dull thuds of quiet low strings, harp and bass drum had faded.

The reprise of this programme, in Saffron Waldon, will be broadcast on Radio 3 on 14th November .

Claire Seymour

Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano), Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Britten Sinfonia.

Mahler - (arr. Britten) What the Wild Flowers tell me; Finzi - The Fall of the Leaf Op.20; Mahler - Rückert-Lieder, Brahms - Symphony No.1 in C minor Op.68

Barbican Hall, London; Thursday 9th November 2017.

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