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2011. The Magic. The Mishaps. The Future.

In Baroque, Beethoven, Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Handel, JS Bach, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner on December 24, 2011 at 8:24 am

2011. The year that I started this blog to recount my own opinions about performances that I attended and CDs that I listened to.

No one’s opinion – particularly mine – is either right not perfect. Listening to music is an intensely, intensely personal experience. I can sit next to a friend and at the end of performance walk away with a completely reaction and different point of view. And on some occasions following what can be heated discussion my opinion has changed. And I can leave performances I attend alone with one perception and after some thought, or a flash of ‘something’, I have changed my mind. Sometimes completely.

So what I have selected below are the ten events or recordings that have struck me as the most significant performances I have heard in 2011. And five that were disappointing against the original expectation.

Top of a list of ten is a recording – or set of recordings – that even now I return to on a daily basis. Step forward Ricardo Chailly, the GewandhausOrchester Leipzig and their well near perfect performances of Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures. At tempi faster than usually expected, these are lithe, muscular renditions of these great works. But at no point do either Chailly or the GewandhausOrchester sacrifice speed for precision and an acute attention to detail. And as I have said before, the timpanist is a revelation. And of all the symphonies, the ‘Eroica’ is my personal favourite and I was fortunate enough to see them perform this symphony during their visit to London. And in 2012 I plan to visit Leipzig and see them on their home turf.

Needless to say, you haven’t purchased this set already then I can’t recommend it enough.

Next to Munich for Richard Jones’ production of Lohengrin in July. I had originally hoped to see both Adrienne Pieczonka and Waltraud Meier in the two female roles, and while Emily Magee more than respectably replaced Ms Pieczonka as Elsa, it was very much Meier’s evening. Her Ortrud was a masterful character study of pure malevolence. As I remarked at the time, there was something almost Shakespearean in the way that Jones revealed the character not only of Ortrud but of her husband, Telramund played magnificently by Evgeny Nikitin. Indeed even when she was not singing, Ms Meier held the complete attention of the audience. Jones direction was masterful not only in its attention to detail – there were some incredibly thought-provoking moments – but also in the way he also captured the grand sweep of emotion as well. The ending – not the traditional one of redemption – is not one I will forget in a hurry.

Another unforgettable evening of Wagner – at the other end of the spectrum – was Opera North’s semi-staged production of Das Rheingold at the Lowry Theatre on Salford Quays. From the moment Richard Farnes – in a moment of simple yet effective theatrical magic – lifted his baton and raised the waves of the Rhine itself, it was a near perfect performance. The singers were without a single weakness and if I am to salute just a few then without doubt they are the Fricka of Yvonne Howard, Lee Bisset’s Freia, the Rhinemaidens one and all – Jeni Bern, Jennifer Johnston and Sarah Castle – and the brilliant Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge. And special mention of Peter Mumford and his exceptionally elegant and effective lighting. This was a performance of Das Rheingold that outshone many I have seen by some of the so-called ‘major’ opera companies and some of that credit is due to the artistic consultancy of Dame Anne Evans. I have a ticket to their production of Die Walküre next year and do not doubt that it will be of the same incredible high standard.

Staying with The Ring, next is Hamburg Opera’s production of Die Walküre (April). General Manager and conductor Simone Young drew incredibly rich and opulent music making from both the orchestra and the singers. Without a doubt this was music that Young both loved deeply and knew inside out. It reminded me in so many ways of Reginald Goodall’s approach to Wagner – majestic, informed and intuitive and with a real attention to the orchestral detail and sensitive to the singers. And the case was incredibly strong. Angela Denoke and Katarina Dalayman were Sieglinde and Brunnhilde respectively but the real revelation for me that evening was Lilli Paasikivi as Fricka. For the first time her confrontation with Wotan in the Second Act became a central focus of the unfolding drama as never before in productions I had seen. Even the production and direction – having seen Gotterdammerung the previous year – was strong. As I said at the time, each action was investing in meaning and the set – while incredibly simply – was completely integrated in the narrative. The Hamburg Opera will perform their complete Ring Cycle in 2012 and I am hoping that I can get the time to see it.

Unexpectedly, Mahler appears twice in my lists of performances. The first is a memorable performance of his Resurrection Symphony by the BBC Philharmonic under their new Chief Conductor, Juanjo Mena. The BBC Philharmonic sounds exceptional – European – at the moment, which is due to their stewardship under Noseda and this is set to continue under Mena. His approach to Mahler’s Second Symphony was one of architectural clarity with an almost Latin-lilt. It’s a shame that it hasn’t be caught for future listening on a CD.

Renée Fleming’s recent performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach crowned a great year of performances for me. As with their 1999 recording, the pair took a valedictory approach with tempi that revelled in the lush sound world created by Strauss. Eschenbach – bar a few small glitches – drew some glorious playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra but Fleming dominated with an intensely personal and intelligent performance, her warm burnished tone, with a new resonance to her bottom notes, making for a memorable evening.

Kasper Holten soon arrives at Covent Garden and I was fortunate to catch his final production at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen. Die Frau ohne Schatten is an incredibly difficult listen and – with its dense storyline – complicated to direct effectively. However Holten, with his manga-noir set managed to negotiate the audience clearly through the story as well as effectively highlight the underlying psychology woven in. On the whole the singers were incredibly strong and Michael Schønwandt and the orchestra were marvellous in the pit. I think that Holten will be a refreshing and inspiring creative change for Covent Garden.

Il Complesso Barocco, led by Alan Curtis and a cast including the incredible Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux brought a musically stunning concert performance of Ariodante to London in May. Curtis’ troupe recording all of Handel’s opera – Giulio Cesare is next in 2012 – and this performance marked the release of Ariodante on CD. Needless to say while the charismatic and accomplished Ms DiDonato stole the show it was an incredible night. Each and every soloist sparked off each other to create some brilliant music making and the discovery – for me – of Sabina Puértolas. Definitely someone to watch.

Strauss Vier Letzte Lieder are placed twice in my top ten of 2011. This time a recording both by an unexpected soprano and which was an unexpected pleasure. Martina Arroyo – more commonly associated with Verdian roles recorded the songs with Gunter Wand. Her incredibly rich voice was well suited to Strauss and she more than managed the soaring vocal line and was sensitively supported by Wand.

And finally this year wouldn’t have been complete without regular delving into the cantatas of JS Bach. While it is better to listen to them in their entirety, the beauty of Gardiner’s exemplary and recordings with the Monteverdi players and singers and the wonder of shuffle means that many a happy hour has been spent waiting to see what random and revelatory track my iPod will play next. Wonderful.

But of course not all performances and recordings were as memorable. Or were memorable for the wrong reasons.

So here are my top five ‘turkeys’ of 2011. In brief.

Top of the list is the Marrinsky Opera production of Die Frau ohne Schatten as part of the Edinburgh Festival. Jonathan Kent’s production had some moments of intelligence but the whole thing was completely destroyed by what can only be described – bar Nikolai Putilin’s Barak – as very poor singing indeed. And Valery Gergiev’s conducting was nothing short of disappointing. I am still waiting for Mr Gergiev to send me a refund.

Next Maazel’s performance of Mahler’s Eighth symphony, which drew his cycle of the symphonies to an end. His meandering approach made for a lacklustre evening that couldn’t even be salvaged by a strong line up of singers. Indeed, with Maazel intent it seemed on working again the soloists, only Sarah Connolly acquitted herself with any success.

My final three choices all hail from my trips this year to the US – to New York and San Francisco. First, a shoddy performance of Il Trovatore at the Met where it seemed that Peter Gelb had made the decision to attract an audience with casting that couldn’t deliver for box office receipts. I don’t think I will ever want to risk seeing or hearing Dolora Zajick on stage again.

Next – and perhaps surprisingly – I have selected the San Francisco Ring cycle. It goes without saying that Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde was absolutely magnificent and for her alone it was worth the journey. In the singing stakes she was joined by Ronnita Miller as both Erda and Norn and a promising Siegmund by Brandon Jovanovich. However the remaining singers were generally not up to it and Donald Runnicles was completely uninspiring in the pit, generating mediocre and bland playing from the orchestra. And yet the most frustrating element was Francesca Zambello’s often lazy, ill-thought through direction. Promising to deal with the ‘real issues’ facing the US, instead she produced a sugar-coated production clearly more suited to placating San Francisco’s rich donors than forcing them to confront reality.

And finally, Robert LePage’s Die Walküre. Again this was not about the singing which was on the whole, superlative. While Deborah Voigt might not be the best Brunnhilde, she delivered a great performance as did Terfel, Westbroek and – on the whole – Kaufmann. And special mention to the incredibly human portrayal of Fricka by Stephanie Blythe. Less a goddess bent on revenge than a wife trying to save a marriage. But the staging, I felt, hindered the singers and became the main attraction, adding nothing to the narrative or underlying messages of Wagner’s opus, but rather merely a backdrop for some rather ineffective and distracting special effects.

So what of 2012? Well looking at my bookings so far, or which I have few, it seems to be a year of Tristan und Isolde. I am seeing it twice in Berlin, including a concert performance with Nina Stemme under Janowski as part of his plans to record all of Wagner’s operas. I am also off to the Millennium Centre to see Welsh National Opera’s production as well. Later in the year I have Opera North’s production of Die Walküre to look forward to as well as their new production of Giulio Cesare.

Other plans include hopefully Hamburg Opera’s Ring Cycle, Renée Fleming in Arabella in Paris and a trip to Leipzig for the GewandhausOrchester.

No plans for anything at English National Opera just yet. I was tempted by Der Rosenkavalier but I have seen the production and while I love the opera I don’t think it warrants a return.

And Covent Garden? Not their Ring Cycle. Once was enough. Perhaps Don Giovanni as I haven’t seen a production of it in a while.

And next year I intend to listen to one completely new piece of music at least every fortnight. So suggestions are most welcome.

So a merry Christmas to one and all and here is to an exciting, enjoyable and thought provoking 2012.

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?

Mena’s Moto Perpetuo Mahler

In Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Review on September 30, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Review – Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”.
Ailish Tynan, Iris Vermillion, London Symphony Chorus.
BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena.
Saturday 24 September, 2011.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, Mahler is challenging to conduct convincingly. As well as being a master of orchestration and – what is often forgotten – having an incredibly keen sense of the orchestra’s colour palette and dynamic flexibility, he was himself an excellent conductor. Having been educated at the Vienna Conservatory he was well acquainted with – in fact acutely knowledgeable about – the music of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven as well as of Wagner and additionally he was one of the few exponents of Bruckner.

All of these elements have to be considered, combined and balanced when it comes to performing his music. In the right combination, with an ensemble of the highest standard and under a conductor of intelligence, passion and experience, a performance can be truly remarkable.

And on Saturday night at Bridgewater Hall, at the inaugural concert of the BBC Philharmonic under their new Chief Conductor Juanjo Mena, all the elements came together, fused brilliantly and created just such a memorable evening.

Mena opened the first movement at a brisker pace than usual. From the first ‘bite’ in the tremolando strings and the rhythmically muscular cello entry – every note clearly discernable – it was clear that Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony was a piece that Mena was both steeped in and loved.

And in the opening section it was also clear that Mena’s approach would balance the “bite” with the lyrical. The violin theme is so often “chopped up” by conductors – even Jurowski in his recent and excellent recording – but Mena’s handling was much more song-like. And throughout the first movement, the attention was in the detail. Mena perfectly balanced the ‘walking bass’ against the woodwind so that as ever before I heard so clearly the inference to chorales.

In the first movement Mena also demonstrated a clear grip on the need for transparency and dynamic control. Throughout this movement and indeed the whole performance, he skillfully balanced the need for transparency so that Mahler’s detailed orchestration could be heard with a broad and at times astonishing dynamic range. It wasn’t until the cataclysmic chord halfway through the first movement that I thought that Mena finally unleashed the full dynamic power of the BBC Philharmonic. It literally made Bridgewater Hall hum. But I was wrong. He held back the full force of the orchestra until the final moments of the whole symphony and pinned the fact that he had – from the beginning – an unerring sense of the whole architecture of the symphony.

Mena took the landler-like second movement at a pace a hair’s breath faster than Jurowski. But while the latter conveyed more of a sense of ‘weight’ – and perhaps not the sense of ‘intermezzo’ that Mahler had originally envisaged – Mena struck a lighter, more genial note with an almost Latin lilt that was clearly conveyed by his own movements when conducting the orchestra. Methinks that on the dance floor Mena is light on his feet and a ‘mover’. However again transparency was never sacrificed for a sense of ‘moto perpetuo’ and at times Mena’s chambelike handling of the orchestra harked back to the symphonies of Beethoven.

The sense of perpetual motion in the second movement was carried over and maintained in the third movement. Yet Mena’s pointing up of the orchestral colours – particularly in the wind – created a different palette – nervous and threatening at the same time, ratcheting up the tension into the outburst from the brass. For the conductor this was a movement of distinct contrasts.

Iris Vermillion’s entry in Urlicht with “O Röschen rot!”, for which Mena daringly brought the tempo to its slowest ebb, was nothing less than magical. Hers is a rich and warm mezzo and she delivered a wonderfully sustained vocal line with clear diction and conveying a real sense of the words, particularly at “Ach nein! Ich liess mich nicht abweisen! Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott”. If you haven’t heard her then I would recommend her Abschied with Sinopoli or her recording of Alma Mahler’s lieder.

The final movement, opening as it does with the orchestra at almost full tilt created the right sense of rude awakening from the preceding bliss. Mena skillfully handled the off-stage performers against the full orchestra, managing the transition to the dialogue between the off-stage brass and the flutes. But it was the first hushed entry of the London Symphony Chorus with “Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du” was breathtaking in its simple beauty. The sound they produced seemed to appear as if from nothing, perfectly balanced with clear diction and joined by the crystalline soprano of Ailish Tynan, a late replacement for the indisposed Susan Gritton. Ms Tynan’s voice glided over the chorus and melded beautifully with Ms Vermillion’s voice.

Mena kept control throughout the closing sections of the symphony, marshalling the soloists, chorus and orchestra to the thrilling climax at “Sterben werd’ ich, zu leben … Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du … Zu Gott wird es dich tragen!” and the closing bars of the orchestra. The silence at Mena lowered his baton, and the final sounds died away in the hall, was palpable.

Throughout the evening the BBC Philharmonic followed Mena with complete focus, instinctively translating every gesture and movement into music making of the highest calibre. Under Gianandrea Noseda the BBC Philharmonic developed a distinctly ‘European’ sound – warm strings, sonorous winds and some of the best brass playing I have heard. And under Mena this direction of travel seems set to continue. Is it perhaps no coincidence that Richard Wigley, General Manager and the orchestra have veered more towards European conductors than their other BBC orchestra colleagues? This distinction stands them in good stead and sets them apart. The other BBC orchestras are excellent but having heard them all at the Proms, and after last night, I believe that the BBC Philharmonic is the strongest of them all in terms of performance.

Mena’s control of speed showed a clear and in-depth knowledge of the overarching architecture of the symphony. From the brisker opening, through the incredibly slow yet serene Urlich to the closing bars, Mena had perfectly judged the tempi thoughout. Not only did he maintain a real sense of momentum as he unfold an incredibly musical interpretation, but never before have I heard the closing bars have such impact, not only in terms of sound but as a result of his perfect sense of proportion and balance in terms of tempo.

I look forward to future performances of Mahler by Mena and the BBC Philharmonic.

Saturday night’s performance of Mahler was – I think – one that the composer himself would have approved of.

Review – Orchestral Songs, Gustav Mahler (Katarina Karnéus/Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Susanna Mälkki. BIS)

In Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Review on July 24, 2011 at 10:56 am

It’s to Norman Lebrecht and his marvellous book, Why Mahler?, that I owe a debt of gratitude to for helping me to develop a deeper appreciation, enjoyment of and ultimately love for the music of Gustav Mahler. Before reading it, I had struggled with his symphonies and lieder, more focused on waiting for the final bars than listening to the music itself. As I have said in a previous blog, I also think there is something to be said about learning to appreciate and enjoy certain composers as you get older and experience more. For me, Mahler is in that category.

Having developed a deep love of his symphonies – bar perhaps the Fourth, which I still struggle with – I moved onto his lieder with renewed interest.

Mahler naturally bestowed on his lieder the same attention in terms of orchestration and structure but his attention to the words – and by this I don’t only mean the texts themselves which were always so carefully chosen – but also the actual sound of the individual words and syllables themselves, was remarkable.

In any performance therefore of his vocal works all these elements – the orchestral writing, the structure, the words and the sound colours deliberately created – need to be considered and balanced against one another to create a perfect fit. And therefore the singer, orchestra and conductor must be in total synch.

Naturally no performance or recording can be perfect. The best we can hope for is ‘definitive’. And even then more than one recording or performance can be so-called.

And again these choices can be – and are – subjective. It can depend not only on different individual expectations but also on mood, time and environment.

But nonetheless ‘definitive’ is a good yardstick when confronted by a recording that confounds and ultimately disappoints. As does this recording of Mahler lieder by Katarina Karnéus. Having listened to this recording over many weeks, I always felt myself drawn back to Christa Ludwig, Janet Baker, Kathleen Ferrier, Fritz Wunderlich and Thomas Hampson.

Winner of Cardiff Singer in 1995, Swedish-born Karnéus has several lieder recital discs under her belt and her recitals of Sibelius and Grieg are particularly notable. Interestingly her very first recording accompanied by the estimable Roger Vignoles featured four of the Rückert lieder featured in the new recording, leaving out Um Mitternacht. I returned to these original performances – granted with piano rather than orchestral – for comparison.

Understandably the performance – piano as opposed to orchestral accompaniment – is different. However the key elements of any performance, particularly Mahler’s lieder, remain the same – clarity, diction, nuance and depth and a supportive accompanist.

The disc opens with Kindertotenlieder and I was immediately struck by the richer, more resonant timbre of Karnéus voice, ideally suited to this repertoire. Nun will sie Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n, with it’s exposed opening and transparent scoring starts well enough with plangent oboe playing but as Karnéus unfolds the vocal line there is more than a little hint of imprecision in terms of tuning which is further marred by her use of vibrato. Vocally Nun seh’ Ich wohl is an improvement with Karnéus keeping a tighter control on the vibrato and unexpected blooms in her singing. Karnéus’ attention to the text occasionally seems overdone, as if she has confused pointedly annunciating almost every syllable as a means of interpretation.

Wenn dein Mutterlein is similarly distracting and towards the end at – O du, des Vaters Zelle – her intonation once again goes wayward.

Oft denk’ Ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen is performed well enough but comes across as dispassionate and almost bland, with no sense conveyed – as by Janet Baker for example – of empty hope.

The final song in the quintet, In diesem Wetter, ultimately betrays one of th key reasons why the performances are so uncompelling. The orchestra under Mälkki is unsympathetic and plain. They fail for example in managing the driving opening of this song, with its sforzandi and pointed wind and brass figurations in comparison to either Barbirolli for Baker or Boulez for von Otter.

And yet the performances of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen are worlds apart in terms of performance and noticeably improved. The opening two songs, Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht and Ging heut morgen übers Feld are more distinctively played by the orchestra and as a result Karnéus’ own performances seem freer and less constrained and rhythmically alert with no sense of any intonation problems. Similarly in Ich hab’ ein gluhend Messer, the orchestra finds the necessary bite which in turn encourages Karnéus own performance. Here she finds the right balance of word colour and interpretation as opposed to the worrying heavy annunciation of Kindertotenlieder. As a result, the ending of this song is bitingly bleak.

The opening song of the Rückerlieder, Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder, seems to go at one hell of a pace but in fact in comparison with other performances – bar Baker and Christianne Stotlijn – this seems to be the performance norm. The orchestra continues to hold up its own side of the bargain, ably supporting Karnéus in this song as in the remaining songs of the cycle. For example, the gentle momentum of Ich atmet einen linden Duft! is well controlled below the vocal and wind lines as is the fluidity required in the string accompaniment of Liebst du um Schönheit.

By reversing the order, Karnéus ends her Rückerlieder cycle with Um Mitternacht and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. With the former we are once again in the exposed orchestral world of the opening song of the disc, but the level of emotional intensity ism maintained almost throughout building successfully to In deine Hand gegeben! to the end of the song with Karnéus in fine voice.

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen is for many the yardstick for any performance of this song cycle. And Karnéus does not disappoint with an expansive performance of this fine song. And while she may not quite achieve the serenity of Janet Baker, Und ruh in einem stillen Gebiet!, so delicately underpinned by the orchestra is a beautiful moment. And Mälkki succeeds in winding down the closing bars effectively.

It’s a shame that the opening performances of Kindertotenlieder mar what ultimately could have been a fine recital disc. Karnéus has the voice ideally suited to this repertoire – and I look forward to hearing her in Richard Strauss – and considering the quality of both the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Rückerlieder I have to wonder if it was a lack of rehearsal or empathy that leads to a disappointing Kindertotenlieder.

But ultimately this new recording doesn’t quite clinch it for me. While Katarina Karnéus turns in a competent performance of two of Mahler’s song cycles, ably accompanied for them most part by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Susanna Mälkki, the final impression is one of disappointment which has me reaching for other performances.

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