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Edda Moser – A Masterclass In Meaningful Mozart

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on October 31, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Review: Mozart Arias (EMI)

My first and enduring memory of Edda Moser was as Donna Anna in Joseph Losey’s film of Don Giovanni. With a cast including Ruggiero Raimondi, Teresa Berganza, Kiri Te Kanawa and José van Dam and conducted by Lorin Maazel, it’s a film – or is it a production? – which I regularly return to.

As part of a strong ensemble, Edda Moser was a perfect Donna Anna. Not only did she perfectly capture the hysteria of the character but she married it with an innately informed and musical approach alongside her colleagues.

In today’s marketing-led world of classical music, Edda Moser would not be characterised as having a ‘beautiful’ voice – where ‘beautiful’ is often simply a synonym for bland and uninteresting. But what this reissue of her recital of Mozart arias demonstrates is that ultimately Moser is an accomplished, flexible and talented artist who literally breathes life into every character she portrays on the CD. I would hazard a guess that not many of today’s artists would be as capable of this level of musicianship and interpretation.

Additionally her diction is superlative. Indeed I understand that as well as being a professor of singing at Cologne’s Hochschule für Musik, she is the founder of the annual Festspiel der Deutschen Sprache, championing the use of proper German over ‘Denglish’. Enough said.

And while her voice may not be ‘beautiful’ to those brainwashed by today’s sleeve-note marketeers, it has a beauty, individuality and real sense of musicianship which should be the envy of many of today’s singers – a unique and distinct timbre, even and precise throughout her entire range with exacting and incredible vocal control even in the most challenging moments of coloratura.

Edda Moser is a confident singer, completely assured and hers is a voice that makes you sit up and not listen so much as demand that you pay absolute attention. This is not a CD to drive to or have on as background music. It must be listened to with no distractions.

The recital disc covers original recordings made between 1971 and 1976 just a few years after Ms Moser made her 1968 debut. Conductors Leopold Hager, Eugene Jochum, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and Peter Scheider provide able support through a selection of arias from Die Zauberflöte, Idomeneo, Don Giovanni (of course), La clemenza di Tito as well as a few both concert and religious arias.

Throughout Moser conveys a real sense of each character she portrays coupled with perfect diction and intelligent interpretation. From Die Zauberflöte she sings to the two arias for the Königin der Nacht, interestingly in reverse order – and clearly to give the disc an impressive ‘opening number’. And it works. In Der Hölle Rache not only is there real fury and fire in the delivery the text but she delivers the demanding coloratura – and the famous high f’s – with pinpoint accuracy, exuding the very confidence and assurance I’ve already mentioned. Just listen to her final phrase – Hört, Rachegötter, Hört der Mutter Schwur! – delivered with utter conviction. In Oh Zittre Nicht, mein Lieber Sohn! … Zum Leiden bin ich auserkoren, Moser adopts a more lyrical tone as befits the aria but with careful attention to detail to the words in the accompagnato and the opening of the aria itself. But again the faster second section holds no difficulties as she once again throws out confident and machine-gun accurate coloratura including a top f which with so many other singers sounds pinched.

Staying with the singspiel theme, next is Marten aller arten. I love this aria but more for it’s passages of coloratura and four delicately balanced concertante instruments that for it’s dramatic potential. Only a precocious adolescent genius would stop the drama at the precise moment when it reaches a critical dénouement, cock a finger at the audience and make them sit there for almost ten minutes. Granted, through a marvellous, beautifully crafted and inventive aria but lessening the emotional and dramatic impact. Compared to Zaide’s Tiger! wetze nur die Klauen, Martern aller arten does what Mozart intended it to say on the tin of the opera – show of Signora Cavallieri’s talent. But this isn’t to complain. And while some people might prefer a greater sense of urgency in the tempo of this aria, Moser’s performance is incredibly accomplished, working with the concertante soloists and with a purity of tone and legato throughout. A more measured tempo not only allows her to negotiate the florid passages with note-perfect ease but actually allows them to breathe and in reality adding dramatic impetus. This is almost the best performance on the disc.

Crudele! … Non mi dir, bell’idol mio is the only aria Ms Moser performs from Don Giovanni and it immediately transported me back to Losey’s film. Her burnished dramatic soprano comes into it’s own and – perhaps because of the association with the film – this is the finest performance on the disc. From the opening Crudele, Moser inhabits the character of Donna Anna sliding through the demanding tessitura and the sweeping arc of the vocal line with faultless technique. More often than not for the audience and the soprano simply the accompagnato as a means to the aria. Not so Ms Moser. Here the emotional emphasis is equally distributed with a smooth legato vocal line and beautifully crafted phrases and embellishments clearly articulated in the opening section of the aria. In the ensuing allegro this is combined with note perfect coloratura which Moser delivers as part of – and not separate to – the overall emotional context. Wonderful.

From Hispanic victim to vengeful Greek for Elettra’s Tutte nel cor vi sento from Idomeneo. And before I proceed, one minor gripe. That EMI cut the aria stone dead by not including the subsequent choral entry. Despite a strong performance it leaves the track somewhat incomplete. Yet Ms Moser is in her element here and I wish I could have seen her Elettra on stage. Here – and in the subsequent aria for the character, Oh Smania! Oh Furie! – D’Oreste e d’Aiace – Moser brilliantly captures a princess full of hatred and a desire for revenge with the broken, hesitant phrases and she accents the appoggiaturas skillfully without ever cutting the notes short or snatching at them. In Elettra’s final aria, Moser raises the emotional temperature without ever sacrificing the Mozart’s lyricism. Although towards to end – and the only moment on the disc – Moser comes close to intonation troubles. Almost but not quite.

Sandwiched between these two arias, and at least chronologically correct unlike Die Zauberflöte at the top of the disc, is Elettra’s Idol mio, se ritroso. In comparison to the character’s other arias in Idomeneo I always feel that this aria is somewhat of a cipher> It lacks the heart-on-sleeve emotion of either of the other two and doesn’t attaining their emotional level. Perhaps because of this, Ms Moser’s performance seems somewhat muted.

From La Clemenza di Tito Moser performs the marvelous Ecco il punto … Non piu di fiori. Following an impassioned accompagnato, the aria launches into one of the stateliest tempos I have heard. With a great control, Moser sails purposefully through the vocal line, ably abetted by a mellifluous clarinet obbligato. And in terms of attention to diction, just listen to her delivery of Stretta fra barbare aspre ritorte, veggo la morte ver me avanzar.

The remainder of the disc is given over to two concert arias and excerpts from Mozart’s sacred music including the Agnus Dei in ensemble with Julia Hamari, Nicolai Gedda and Dietrich–Dieskau. All are beautifully performed but the single most pleasant surprise of the entire disc is Moser’s performance of the incredibly challenging Popoli di Tessaglia … Io non chiedo written for Aloysia Weber, for whom Mozart wrote some of his most demanding concert arias. An aria more commonly associated with Rita Streich, Edita Gruberova, Natalie Dessay and Cyndia Sieden, I was intrigued to hear Edda Moser.

This is not an aria to shrink from and Moser confronts it head on, delivering a performance of innate musicality and verve with intense control of her voice. As with the other examples on the disc, Moser gives equal weight to the opening accompagnato with attention to both the words and the vocal line. It’s interesting to note that the conductor on this occasion is Leopold Hager, who would later return to this aria with Gruberova. His handling of the delicate and filigree orchestral accompaniment with its oboe and bassoon obbligati is wonderfully detailed and Moser rises to and surpasses the challenge, spinning a rich yet even tone throughout her register. Indeed the richness of her tone surpasses many other performances of this aria.

And with a sense of ease that is remarkable she hits each and every g’ that Mozart fiendishly wrote. And indeed she sails to the note and holds it. No snatching from Ms Moser. Indeed, listening to her effortlessly fling out the coloratura, without a doubt Moser combines vocal security with innate musicianship that tips this performance of Popoli di Tessaglia well above those of other singers.

Brava Signora Moser! A masterclass in Mozart and a pleasure for repeated listening.


French Opera. English Translation. German Design.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on October 26, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Review – Castor & Pollux (English National Opera, Monday 24 October 2011)

Telaïre – Sophie Bevan

Phébé – Laura Tatulescu
Castor – Allan Clayton
Pollux – Roderick Williams
Jupiter – Henry Waddington
High Priest of Jupiter – Andrew Rupp
Mercury/Athlete – Ed Lyon

Director – Barrie Kosky

Designer – Katrin Lea Tag

Lighting Designer – Franck Evin

Translator – Amanda Holden
Conductor – Christian Curnyn

Rameau was a renowned innovator and at the opening night of Castor et Pollux, ENO’s first foray into French Baroque opera, the theme of and commitment to innovation continued and produced a wonderful evening.

ENO and Komische Oper Berlin decided to use the second – 1754 – version by Rameau. They argued that dramatically this was the most coherent as it included the death of Castor rather than opening once the deed had been done.

The challenge for any director of Baroque opera is how “true” should they be? Of course there is the ultra traditionalist approach and particularly in the field of French Baroque opera this has yielded incredible performances and spectacles. Think of Lully’s Atys or even more recently Psyché for example.

However, and not only because of the cost inherent in such productions, these are few and far between. While the authentic approach is valuable and fulfilling – Atys is possibly one of the few productions that I will always remember – they do, by their very nature, seclude themselves from the audience in terms of emotional reaction although their musical standard is well-nigh unimpeachable.

The other option is to remove all the self-imposed restrictions of French Baroque opera and go to the other extreme. A complete reinvention of the drama without, of course, undermining the narrative.

This production of Castor et Pollux (pace I have to use the original French henceforward) went to this extreme, and bar a few misguided moments which can be ironed out, it was an extremely strong and intelligent production. Indeed it could become one of ENO’s seminal productions – alongside Minghella’s Madam Butterfly, Christopher Alden’s Makropulos Case and many of the Handel operas in their repertoire.

Over the past few years and led by John Berry (who ever doubted that he was the ideal Artistic Director for ENO?), the Company has embarked on a series of co-productions with other opera houses across Europe, as well as the Met in New York.

This is a co-production with Komische Oper Berlin and the Northern European influences were clear. Kosky – who makes his debut with ENO with this production – resides in the German capital and is clearly steeped in their modern opera tradition. In 2012 he will take up the post of Intendant of the Komische Oper Berlin.

The standard of the production was not only very high, but from the moment the doors to the auditorium opened, it was clear that this was going to be a very European – in fact – very ‘German’ production. It was almost as if – for one night only – a slice of Berlin had landed in central London.

In the programme, Kosky said that his intention was to strip away anything that might distract from the drama as it unfolded onstage. Therefore Katrin Lea Tag presented us with an empty wooden box. Devoid of any distraction. Literally beyond minimalist. The whole of the drama played out between its four walls and Kosky used a series of screens to vary the depth of the stage and to provide a sense of ‘reveal’ as the action unfolded.

This was an incredibly daring approach. For an audience – I would contend – unaccustomed to French baroque opera let alone Rameau, this meant that all action had to be focused on the protagonists on the stage. There was literally no escape for them. Or for the audience.

The use of a mound of mud after Castor’s death was the only relief from the four stark walls. And it worked emotionally as well as visually. It was incredibly moving to watch Telaïre bury her own lover to the haunting strains of Rameau’s music. And reducing it in the second half while cleverly keeping it as an entry point was a nice touch. Death never seemed far away.

However, empty wooden boxed stage sets are not new in opera productions. And while was the first arresting visual upon entry in to the auditorium, the most notable difference was that Curnyn and Kosky had decided to raise the orchestra in the pit. Again they made their intention clear in the pre-publicity as well as in the programme. Rameau was an incredible orchestrator, and the timbre and orchestration was critical to any performance of his stage works. Raising the players so that they were visible not only created a connection with the singers and chorus on stage but also created the right balance and sound world that Rameau intended.

In terms of the production itself, it was Regietheater at its best. But also its weakest. As I said from the beginning total focus was on the four main characters – the brothers Castor and Pollux and the two sisters Telaïre and Phébé as well as the chorus and dancers.

Kosky’s method is to develop the characters and their interaction during rehearsals and while this might be the case there is clearly – and there has to be – a framework in which the performers operate and which provides boundaries in terms of behaviours to a certain extent.

Kosky also uses some recognizable – and if truth be told almost over-used – modern directorial devices. In this production, some naturally worked better than others.

For example in the opening scene, we had Phébé – and subsequent characters in the opera – face the walls when they were contemplating charged emotion. This was then followed by reckless running from stage left, to stage right, to stage back and then to stage front. Exhausting. And at the end, as Telaïre dashed needlessly around the stage, almost distracted from the emotional impact.

However there is no denying that the physicality of Kosky’s direction did reap dividends on the whole. The sheer raw power of the love between Telaïre and Castor was not the refined love that would have been originally envisaged by Rameau and his Eighteenth Century audience with their scratching at doors and fan-codes. It was a love almost born almost of force. Brute force. In fact there seemed nothing redeeming about their love at all. This contrasted strongly with the emotional reticence of his immortal half brother, Pollux, who only expressed emotion when killing Lynceus, or when facing his father Apollo. There was no love for Telaïre and it wasn’t love for his brother but rather a sense of competition and duty that required him to enter the Underworld

And the brutality of the fight scenes – brilliantly handled I must add – literally resulted in sharp intakes of breath from the audience.

Similarly the use of implicit sexual imagery and a general theme of sexuality abounded. Clearly when the use is intelligent and clearly linked to the narrative then the imagery and effect is powerful. For example, as Apollo called on his brethren to dissuade Pollux from entering Hades, the nymphs that appeared – and in a very nice touch they were Telaïre And Phébé in disguise – were dressed as schoolgirls, or perhaps baby dolls. The imagery was disturbing, all the more so because of the strong acting by both protagonists. Their giggling was effectively uncomfortable. And developing this theme, Kosky then had the duo remove their multiple pairs of underwear while straddling the immortal brother. Again a powerful image due to the inferences but to repeat it later on was a mistake.

As Pollux then attempted to enter Hades, Kosky misguidedly chose to use more flagrant sexual imagery as Phébé called upon demons to stop him. Pinned to the wall of mud a single hand breaks through and proceeds to – and there is no other way of saying this – masturbate the sorceress. It seemed needlessly provocative and didn’t add to the drama.

While simple blocking of the chorus might not have been wholly-appropriate for the ENO chorus, more than once the hurdles that they had to negotiate either detracted from the drama or led to inaccurate singing. But hats off to those members of the chorus who performed in their underwear and were still convincing protagonists. Again perhaps this will be refined in later performances or for Berlin.

Needless to say there were some Regietheater elements that didn’t work. That isn’t to say that these devices don’t work in other productions but here there didn’t seem to be any sense of logic.

For example in the second half there were the requisite ‘clowns’ for no apparent reason and of course, nudity. The nudity was clearly selective – I can imagine the kind of conversation that would have ensued if the chorus had been asked to go beyond underwear – and therefore it didn’t seem clearly thought through. The titters I heard in the audience weren’t from a general sense of discomfort but rather at the absurdity of it all.

Another device that seemed misplaced was to dress Castor as his former prospective bride in the Underworld and before his confrontation with Pollux. A clever inference but Kosky did not develop it and therefore at the close of the first act it was simple Castor-Dressed-As-Telaïre-Kissing-His-Brother-Pollux-But-Why?

It will be interesting to see how Kosky takes the production here in London and tweaks or develops it more fully for the premiere in Berlin next year.

But these were minor distractions in what was a strong production and where the level of music making was incredibly high. Curnyn and the orchestra clearly reveled in Rameau’s music and there were moments of great beauty. When Castor returned to earth the playing from the pit was ravishing. If I have one incredibly small gripe it was that Curnyn didn’t do enough to elicit a broader range of orchestral colour but I think that this has more to do with playing ‘authentically’ on modern instruments.

All this discussion of the production is not to forget or detract from the incredible quality of the singing.

All the soloists were incredibly strong and without exception their diction was excellent. Amanda Holden’s translation was excellent and carefully took into account the vagaries of French Baroque phrasing and cadences.

As I said all the singers were outstanding yet especial praise must go to the leading pair of Castor and Telaïre – Allan Clayton and Sophie Bevan. Clayton’s was an incredibly bright, precise tenor voice and a delight to listen to. He more than met the demands of the role and sang Rameau’s lines with great elegance and fluidity. Similarly, Bevan’s bell like soprano was beautifully nuanced and her ability to mould the vocal line was at times breathtaking. I look forward to her Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier.

Roderick Williams’ Pollux and Laura Tatulescu’s Phébé were equally strong and clearly some time had been spent in casting singers whose very individual timbres would meld so beautiful in the rare instances of ensemble singing.

And finally special mention of Ed Lyon’s Mercury. Not only was his acting superb but he sung what was possibly the most demanding aria of the evening with enthusiastic yet precise gusto and with a clarity of voice and tone that was exceptional.

So all in all an incredibly strong production. And who will ever forget the closing scene of Castor and Pollux’s shoes abandoned centre stage and two identical showers of silver representing their ascent into the sky as stars.

Truly memorable and worth seeing. Even if you have seen it already.

Stop Everything. And Listen. Especially To The Timpanist.

In Beethoven, Classical Music, Review on October 22, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Review: Symphonies 1-9 & Overtures. Katerina Beranova, Lilli Paasikivi, Robert Dean Smith, Hanno Müller-Brachmann. Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and Chorus & Ricardo Chailly.

It’s difficult not to turn to clichés regarding Chailly’s recording of Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures. First of all, it’s simply remarkable that Chailly has not attempted them before – either individually or complete and I understand that the set is made up of live recordings made over the last three years.

Quite simply I have listened to almost nothing else since I downloaded the set from iTunes. And I have listened to them from beginning to end – from the first chord of the First Symphony in C Major to the closing and triumphant bars of the Choral – without interruption and without repeating or skipping a track.

Chailly’s isn’t the only set of complete Beethoven symphonies I own. Naturally I have Karajan’s recordings of 1963 and 1967 as well as Rattle’s with the Vienna Philharmonic, Zinman’s superlative set with the Tonhalle Orchestra and Hogwood’s performances on original instruments. And I also have individual performances by the likes of Fricsay – his recording of the Eroica is one of my all-time favourites – Furtwangler, Haitink, Barenboim etc. However without exception I have not listened to any of the sets from beginning to end in one sitting.

Not until now. Not until Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig of which he has been Kapellmeister since 2005.

From the very beginning it’s clear that Chailly and the players have an incredibly strong and special relationship. Not only does the orchestra play with absolute precision, but Chailly draws from them a wealth of orchestral colour, breadth of dynamic range – including real diminuendi not simply a sudden cut in the volume – and precise yet flexible ensemble playing that immediately sets these performances apart. There is an intensity, a muscularity and vigour in the playing throughout this recording that is not matched with such consistency elsewhere in my opinion.

This isn’t the place to go through each of the symphonies individually. The devil is in the detail and discovering that detail is part of the wonder.

But as I said, from the first chord of the opening Symphony in C Major Chailly’s approach has a real clarity. For Chailly, the pizzicato strings don’t merely pluck the note, they actively attack it. For conductor and orchestra this clearly isn’t just a symphonic successor to ‘Papa’ Haydn, but a completely new sound world.

My old university lecturer once told me that what Beethoven did in his symphonies was to liberate the wind and brass instruments and in some cases used them almost like a military band. And I think that this is something that is clearest in these performances. The woodwind and brass do seem more ‘liberated’ than in other sets. I don’t mean the solo elements stand out more – that is true of the other performances – but rather, and this is particularly true in the first five or so symphonies, they are not merely ‘adding padding’, but actively contributing to the overall collage of sound. Listen to the trumpets in the Second Symphony for example.

Chailly’s choice of tempi has been remarked on in some reviews. Granted his speeds are generally on the swift side – even in the slow movements – but because of the attention to detail and the virtuosity of the playing, the speeds never seem hurried but instead, seem to grow out of an increasing sense of momentum that drives the individual symphonies through their respective movements to the last dying sounds as he lowers his baton after each and every finale. And of course his generally faster tempi add to the sense of drama that is delivered in spades in each symphony and every overture.

Take Chailly’s interpretation of the ‘Eroica’ for example. From the opening chords it’s almost like the French are almost at the gates of Vienna as Chailly shines a light on the more martial aspects of the symphony. It’s literally more ‘cannon shot’ than simple chords at the beginning and this immediately creates a sense of urgency and tension. But despite the tempo, the music doesn’t sound rushed – no notes or phrases are snatched – and Chailly delivers each and every of Beethoven’s carefully marked sforzandi with great precision. And listen to how Chailly brings out the horn line in the fugal passage in the development section. Marvellous. And for Chailly, the dissonant trumpet that follows almost immediately is given equal weight without being given the undue prominence accorded it by other conductors. The second movement, Marcia funebre, is beautifully judged – Chailly clearly choosing a tempo that could literally be marched to. You can almost imagine the flag-draped coffin on the gun carriage and crowds of people looking on and in some ways reminded me of the wind symphonies and other music of French Revolutionary composer, Gossec. Perhaps for me the Scherzo that follows isn’t the Allegro Vivace that I would have liked but instead of speed Chailly points out the delicacy and humour of the writing. The final movement is simply one long whirlwind of fantastic music making.

And there is a real transparency too. Chailly skilfully ensures that all the orchestral detail and the inner parts are given equal weight. In the Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony for example, Chailly weaves the wonderfully delicate counterpoint together without sacrificing any of the thematic material one over the other. And the first orchestral tutti is quite simply breathtaking before Chailly winds down the sound with incredible mastery into the second subject with no sense of the awkward ‘gear change’ that happens in some performances.

While the first eight symphonies are incredible in their own right, the crowning glory of the set is the Ninth – Choral – Symphony. From the opening bars, where Chailly allows the music to emerge almost from nothing the orchestra’s playing sweeps everything out of its path under Chailly’s relentless grip on the tempo and dynamics. The third movement, Adagio molto e cantabile, is a heart-stopping moment and Chailly draws even greater warmth from the strings and woodwind without ever becoming indulgent. The singers – Katerina Beranova, Lilli Paasikivi, Robert Dean Smith, Hanno Müller-Brachmann – and chorus are exemplary in the final movement and how delightful to hear Paasikivi again after seeing her as Fricka in Hamburg in April earlier this. Chailly magnificently marshals and drives the increased forces into the final section, drawing disciplined singing from everyone involved to bring the symphony and the set to a brilliant close.

The performances of the overtures included in the set are equally well performed, with Chailly according them their symphonic due. Pace for not writing more on them individually but they are brilliantly performed.

So what of the timpanist? It’s often difficult not to point out individual soloists in each of the sections of any orchestra but here especial credit and mention must go to the timpanist. If my research is correct it is either a gentleman by the name of Tom Greenleaves or Matthias Müller. The playing and timbre are exceptional – something I imagine is not often said of timpanists but it needs to be said here. And thrillingly he is giving a masterclass in percussion during the orchestra’s time at the Barbican.

And the entire set is wonderfully supported by the warm and generous acoustic in which it is recorded.

While I am fortunate to have tickets to see Chailly and The Gewandhausorchester perform the Third and Eighth symphonies in London very soon, I will be making it a priority to visit Leipzig as soon as to hear them on their home turf.

In the meantime, and regardless of how many different recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies you own, buy this set.

Lock the door. Turn off your phone. Make a pot of tea. And listen.

Maestro Maazel’s Misjudged Mahler Makes For Mediocrity

In Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Review on October 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Review – Symphony No. 8, Gustav Mahler
Sally Matthews, Ailish Tynan, Sarah Tyan, Sarah Connolly, Anne-Marie Owens, Stefan Vinke, Mark Stone & Stephen Gadd. Philharmonia Chorus, BBC Symphony Chorus, Boys of the Eton College Chapel Choir. Philharmonia Orchestra, Lorin Maazel.

Maazel ended his Mahler cycle which he began in earnest in April of this year with Gustav’s Eighth Symphony. The cycle as a whole has had a mixed reception and I have two admissions.

First of all I did not attend any of the other performances in the cycle and therefore cannot testify if there was any sense of ‘greater architecture’ or cohension to the cycle. And secondly I still had the magnificent performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony by Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic ringing in my ears from the previous weekend.

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony always sets up a sense of various expectations. Not only in terms of the forces that must be assembled – although fortunately not always the ‘one thousand’ of legend – but also in terms of the line up of soloists and of course the credentials of both orchestra and conductor.

On paper it all looked very promising. I have Maazel’s complete recordings of Mahler’s symhonies with the Vienna Philharmonic and I don’t think that his approach to this symphony has changed much from set to stage. Additionally the soloists ranked on Sunday were potentially impressive.

So why did I leave the concert hall feeling disappointed? Granted there were some who stood and gave ovations. Perhaps they had attended the whole cycle? Perhaps they were genuinely moved?

For me it was a lacklustre and at times incredibly frustrating evening. I have heard the term ‘directionless’ used with reference to the other performances in the cycle and that seems the best description for Maazel’s performance of the Eighth Symphony.

Granted the opening, Veni, creator spiritus was magnificent and promising. But simply in a way that – I believe – you cannot get the opening of this symphony so completely wrong that it doesn’t have impact. From the opening chord of the organ, the opening bars are as much about simply marshalling the extravagant forces arrayed in from of the podium as creating the momentum that will carry through to the closing bars of Part One.

There was both immediate sound and weight, yet almost immediately Maazel showed that he didn’t really have a direction of travel. Almost from the beginning it seemed that what Maazel lacked was a sense of pace, direction and attention to detail.

While Mahler wrote what can only be described as a ‘wall of sound’ for the opening, he was – as I have said before – a master of orchestration. He had an innate knowledge of orchestral colour and balance and despite the furious activity in the opening bars Mahler scores the orchestra intuitively as he begins to lay out the thematic ideas that will dominate for the rest of the symphony.

It became evident that Maazel wasn’t so interested in delving into this level of detail and was simply conducting the notes. There was none of the transparency or sense of contrast written so clearly, lovingly and with deliberate purpose into the score. Even in terms of dynamic range Maazel seemed to operate in one of two modes – very loud or dynamically bland. In fact by the end of the performance I was convinced that Maazel was so detached from the performers on the stage that he almost gave the impression of wanting to be somewhere else.

The chorus’ first entry quickly gave way to blurred lines vocal lines and many orchestral entries were ragged.

The soloists – bar one – fared little better and as they are all exemplary performers I can only put this down to a lack of frisson with Maestro Maazel himself. For the most part they seemed to struggle against the conductor rather than working with him.

Stefan Vinke – whose bell-like tenor is usually a pleasure to hear and whose diction is a marvel – bravely attempted to rise to the challenge that Mahler set the tenor soloist. Let’s be clear, it’s a punishing role at the best of time when the conductor is sensitive to the music, but here from almost the start his voice sounded strained as he fought to be heard against Maazel and above the orchestra. At no point was there any sense that he was getting any sensitive or intelligent support from the conductor. And this was sadly true of the remaining soloists.

Sally Mathews’ normally resplendent soprano, so rich and warm in tone seemed unusually ill-matched in this performance. There were moments when her brilliant soprano shone through but not as often as Mahler would have envisaged. And Ailish Tynan – who stepped in at the last minute so thrillingly for Mena’s Mahler a few weeks back – on this occasion sounded shrill and in the Second Part seemed to develop a peculiar affectation of over emphasising and individually aspirating notes in what should have been fluid vocal phrases.

The third soprano, Sarah Tynan – positioned in one of the uppermost boxes in the Royal Festival Hall – was hampered by her distance from her compatriots. Like Lee Bissett, Sarah Tynan is a ‘graduate’ of the ENO’s Young Singers and I have always been an admirer. Alas, accustomed as I am to her bell-like soprano, she too sounded somewhat out of sorts and her voice has a strange veil over the expected brightness.

Of the remaining men, Stephen Gadd (and pace Brindley Sherratt for the mistake) failed to make any impact at all. His deep bass failing to convey any of the mastery of Mahler’s music or words and on occasion seemed to slide across phrases rather than singing individual notes. Singularly disappointing. And finally neither Mark Stone nor Anne-Marie Owens – again both incredibly talented artists in their own right – made any impact.

So it was left to the marvellous Sarah Connolly to rescue the performance. An ever accomplished and talented performer she single-handed exuded vocal confidence in her every entr. She alone rose above the distraction of Maazel to deliver a stunning and meanginful performance – words crystal clear, tone rich and resonant.

The Philharmonia Orchestra also failed to assert themselves, and at times seemed at odds with the man with the baton in his hand. Some superlative playing from the woodwind coulldn’t gloss over the less than burnished tone from the string section and – truth be told – some rather ‘hiccuped’ solos from them as well. The bleakness at the opening of Part Two had more to do with a clear lack of confidence in the players than conveying the notes on the page.

And pace to everyone, but I have to admit that the fainting double bass player just at the end may have achieved the only sense of momentum and excitement in the whole evening. But joking aside, I do hope that both she and her instrument are much recovered. And all credit to her colleagues who kept on going.

So while I won’t go so far as to say that the performance was a complete disaster, it was – and perhaps a worse indictment – a mediocre performance. Maazel – semi or completely detached on the podium – didn’t deliver any sense of breadth or understanding of the symphony’s broader architecture. As a result he failed to inspire either the orchestra or the soloists.

By the end of the performance I was left thinking of those dreadful equations that I had to do when I was at school. If a car is travelling north west at sixty miles per hour, and a truck is travelling south east at 35 miles an hour, what time do they pass one another? Or on this occasion, it was more if Maazel starts conducting at 7.30pm and merely trundles through the motions of conducting Mahler, what time is the earliest that I will get home?


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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