Michelle DeYoung, Lorin Maazel Do Mahler in Manchester

Mahler: Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano) Philharmonia Orchestra/Lorin Maazel (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 11.04.2011 (MC)

Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)

Mahler: Symphony No.1 in D major ‘Titan’

It was wonderful to have maestro Lorin Maazel, now in his eighties, conducting at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. Starting in the 2012/13 season maestro Maazel is to be the new chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic taking over from Christian Thielemann. To mark the centenary year of Mahler’s death maestro Maazel is performing a complete cycle of the Mahler symphonies. Maazel’s pilgrimage began at the Bridgewater Hall this evening with early Mahler performing the orchestral song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) in a moving rendition sung by Michelle DeYoung and a thrilling performance of the Symphony No.1 in D major Titan’.

The concert seemed rather short in duration, an occurrence which is not untypical these days. I felt the programme would have benefited from an additional work. Mahler was acknowledged as a key influence on the music of the Second Viennese School and Anton Webern’s Six Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6, lasting around twelve minutes, would have made a perfect addition to the programme.

Mahler wrote his own texts for his Wayfarer Songs, a cycle of four orchestral songs for low voice often sung by a mezzo-soprano. The score was greatly influenced by the breakup of a love affair with soprano Johanna Richter and inspired by the German folk poetry of Des Knaben Wonderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). A lovelorn Mahler wrote of the young soprano, “She is all that is lovable in this world. I would willingly give my last drop of blood for her.” Composed close together Mahler incorporated music from the Wayfarer Songs in his First Symphony.

American born mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung frequently sings Mahler and seems eminently suited to the complicated emotional demands of the Wayfarer texts. I was immediately struck by her sturdy and powerful voice which she was able to project with ease. In addition to her attractive dusky tone, DeYoung was so expressive at times it felt as if she was acting the part. I felt extremely comfortable listening to DeYoung’s voice. The sombre opening song Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When My Sweetheart is Married) is so infused with melancholy as the Wayfarer realises that the love of his life is spurning him to marry someone else. Welcome exuberance as the Wayfarer in Ging heut Morgen übers Feld (I Went This Morning over the Field) rejoices in the beauty of nature. I loved the luxurious Viennese lilt Maazel brought to the radiant strings. Portraying birdsong and nature sounds there were some glorious woodwind contributions too. The song ends with a palpable sense of gloom and sadness. Right from the first bar the bitter menace of the tortured third movement Ich hab’ein glühend Messer (I Have a Gleaming Knife) can be heard and maintained throughout with an unceasing anguish. In the final song Die zwei blauen Augen (The two blue eyes of my Darling) the Wayfarer, in a bid to find solace, sleeps under the Linden tree (a commonly used Romantic metaphor for death) and lies covered in fallen blossom. The eerie funeral march represents the demise of the Wayfarer’s relationship. With imploring tones DeYoung makes a splendid case for this moving score that Mahler orchestrated so sumptuously.

I was rather perplexed why the four movement score was presented without providing sight of Mahler’s carefully prepared texts. This omission resulted in an audience able to hear the music but not permitted to understand the meaning of the words. The German texts with English translations are not lengthy and could have easily been contained in the programme notes or even better used as surtitles.

Following close on the heels of his Wayfarer Songs Mahler gave his Symphony No.1 in D major Titan’ several revisions before arriving at the four movement version that we know today. I couldn’t imagine anyone feeling short-changed by Lorin Maazel’s inspiring reading of Mahler’s First Symphony always a favourite with concert audiences. Maazel’s calm and measured interpretation of the opening movement was almost trance-like with an unsettling undercurrent of tension. Supportive contributions from the excellent brass section so adapt at maintaining bright and razor sharp playing. Earnestly Maazel builds up the energy to provide a weighty climax.

In the Scherzo the stomping Ländler felt expressively outlandish. This lithe music was full of surprises with some succulent textures. With affection Maazel’s return to the Ländler was exhilarating and extremely bold.

The slow movement with its lumbering funeral march was handled with a touching degree of subtlety by Maazel resulting in polished playing from the Philharmonia. I loved Maazel’s depiction of Mahler’s klezmer band delivered in a distinctive manner that felt suitably tawdry and mocking. Colourfully rustic the woodwind contributions were simply exceptional supported by some tender string playing.

Pounding percussion and, biting and snarling brass led the way in the Finale generating playing of remarkable potency. I cherished the heartbreaking melody played so irresistibly on the high strings. For additional impact the large bank of horns was commanded by Maazel to stand for the conclusion. Maazel unleashed a ferocious power from the Philharmonia to create an earth-shattering and triumphant climax. The audience cheered and many stood up to show their appreciation.


Michael Cookson