Mahler Festival Leipzig: Luisi – Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra – Das Lied von der Erde

Mahler: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Anna Larsson (mezzo), Robert Dean Smith (tenor), Fabio Luisi (conductor) Gewandhaus, Leipzig, 22.5.2011 (JFL)

Mahler: Totenfeier, Das Lied von der Erde


While the New York Times is busy pitching Fabio Luisi as James Levine’s successor at the MET (it’s almost too obvious now, I wouldn’t be half surprised if the appointment ended up being someone else), Luisi was in Leizpig adding Mahler with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra to his conducting-credentials. Incidentally that put him in direct Mahler-competition with his two former orchestras, the MDR SO and the Dresden Staatskapelle.[1]

Purely on a technical level, it wasn’t too much of a contest; neither Dresden’s performance nor that of the MDR were so watertight that the RCO couldn’t have collectively sleepwalked to a better result. (They didn’t sleepwalk, but a few players might have preferred a leisurely breakfast over playing Das Lied von der Erde the Gewandhaus at 11AM.)

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde,
B.Haitink / Baker, King / RCO
available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Totenfeier & Symphony No.2,
R.Chailly / RCO
Mahler in Leipzig on S&H: 
Sy. No.3 / Dresden St.Kap. / Salonen
Sy. No.10 / MDRSO / Märkl
Sy. No.7 / BRSO / Nezét-Séguin
Sy. No.1 / LSO / Gergiev
Sy. No.5 / NY Phil / Gilbert
Sy. No.6 / Tonhalle / Zinman
Sy. No.4 / MCO / Harding

But performance is more than getting all the notes and entries right… and in that regard Luisi, his Dutch orchestra, and the soloists left something to be desired. It started very promisingly with Mahler’s stand-alone symphonic movement “Totenfeier”, which Mahler would, with very few changes, turn into the first movement of the Second Symphony. The movement has special relevance for a Mahler Festival in Leipzig because it was, along with the First Symphony, composed while Mahler was second Kapellmeister in Leipzig (under Arthur Nikisch). Luisi combined deliberate touches, careful calibration, nuanced dynamics, and broadly sweeping gestures into a very pleasing whole – and the homogenous, mellow woodwind section had particular opportunity to distinguish itself. Perhaps it was to the advantage of that movement that it stood alone, rather than at the beginning of the long journey of the whole symphony. (Much like a single act from an opera in concert can sound very different than the same act as part of the whole.) Only the last few bars ended on a whimper, with matinee-timidity from the brass and strings.

Unfortunately that was pretty much the end of the glory. Das Lied von der Erde with Anna Larsson and Robert Dean Smith didn’t live up to the promise from before the intermission. This was largely due to Luisi allowing the orchestra to completely drown out the singers at every occasion he got. To his very considerable credit, Dean Smith did not let this tempt him to push his unspectacular but very fine voice—clear and unmannered—through the orchestra. It would only have sounded crude and he wouldn’t have had a chance, anyway. To the extent one heard him sing, there wasn’t much by way of inflection or text-coloring, but diction and pronunciation were exceptional.
Interestingly enough that same did not apply to Mme. Larsson, a model of stylish restraint and taste in her sleek black dress, as tall as Luisi with rostrum. Her voice is, in the low registers, deliciously haunting as ever… but hard—impossible, actually—to understand throughout the other registers, with a strange hollow quality to boot, as if you get the surrounding of a beautiful voice, a halo… but never quite the center. Luisi didn’t seem to care or mind about the voices and was busily engaged in an admittedly very lively accompaniment that completely dominated the affair. Eventually the liveliness faded, too, the energy level became inconsistent and in Der Abschied only musical moments remained, but no arch that carried one through to the end. Larsson’s “EwigEwig!” was lovingly muted but one could only make out “Eeeehhhhh…-something”. I’m willing to assign blame to the hour of the day; AM-Mahler is probably just not a good idea.

Jens F. Laurson

[1] Luisi resigned from that orchestra in a (perfectly justified) huff and puff when the new management bungled big time and didn’t even deign to inform him that his slated successor, Christian Thielemann, would conduct his, Luisi’s orchestra in a New Years TV Gala performance in 2010.