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Posts Tagged ‘Gustav Mahler’

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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