Maazel’s Mahler 4 and Rückert-Lieder in London

30/04/2011

Mahler: Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Sarah Fox (soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra; Lorin Maazel (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London 28.4.2011. (JPr)

Mahler – Rückert-Lieder; Symphony No.4

About 20 years Lorin Maazel recorded ‘The Ring Without Words’ with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, as if the only way to make the complexity of the Ring accessible to the widest possible audience for posterity was to remove the more variable element, that of the human voice. Joining the Maazel: Mahler Cycle 2011 for this fourth concert I mused on this, for – however ravishing and thought-provoking the orchestra playing was – it was crucially undermined by two singers who on this night were inadequate to their part in the proceedings.

Maazel could perhaps have helped the clearly-labouring Simon Keenlyside more in the Rückert-Lieder by giving him a lighter, more chamber-like, accompaniment – as although Mahler’s music sounded suitably atmospheric from the very large Philharmonia ensemble it totally swallowed up the efforts from the baritone at times. Sadly, Keenlyside does not seem to have the range these songs require; he was over-stretched at the top, resorting a couple of times to a fragile falsetto in ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ and the low opening to ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ was very gravelly. This last song was perhaps his best but only because ‘I am lost to the world’ seemed to take on a world-weary autobiographical poignancy all of its own: Mr Keenlyside, with his left arm in a cast and a sling with which he constantly fiddled, seemed physically distressed and I wondered why he went ahead with this engagement. Anyway these songs are best suited for a female voice and any of a number of the world’s leading mezzos would have brought a truer insight into what are intimate glimpses into Mahler’s heart and mind.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is one of his most accessible works. It seems to have been almost cobbled together in what little spare time Mahler had away from his demanding conducting duties. Three movements were drafted in 1899 and by adding the song ‘Das himmlische Leben’, a child’s vision of heaven that was left out of the Third Symphony, it was completed in 1901. It wonderfully intertwines this child’s song and other folk tunes, with Klezmer music that Maazel particularly reveled in, as well as waltzes and marches, in an essentially innocent composition. Julian Johnson’s programme for this Philharmonia Mahler Cycle is an illustrated thing of beauty and he reminds us how in 1901 the première in Munich caused a scandal because Mahler’s critics considered the work ‘a bad joke at the expense of the symphony itself, a satire on the high artistic values of Austro-German music, full of clownish pranks and grotesque parody’.

In Lorin Maazel’s relaxed reading it is clearly an untroubled work, neither too saccharine, nor too dark. Conducting without a score Maazel seems to employ many novel turns of phrase and didn’t always appear to adhere to Mahler’s instructions but why should he? Mahler’s favourite was ‘Nicht schleppend’ (Don’t drag) and this can often mean conductors press on and disengage from the character of the work. Maazel concentrates on the symphony’s cosy – gemütlich – nature and it generally worked for me. There aren’t many climaxes in this symphony but here those there are duly welled up but soon subsided. Perhaps this performance never entirely took off – mainly due to a disappointing ending – but the orchestral playing was refined and the excellent, diabolically re-tuned, violin solo from Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay was admirably supported by all the contributions from the Philharmonia’s principal players.

Maazel takes the slow third movement (marked poco adagio) quite broadly and makes very little of being at ‘heaven’s gate’ at the climax as the violins’ closing lines drift upwards. It had all become somewhat too serene and he even allowed a gap for the soprano soloist to come onto the platform before a fairly brisk and slightly prosaic finale. Sarah Fox made little attempt at childlike tones or emotions and did not use the words very well; she sounded ill at ease and uninvolved.

Jim Pritchard

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