Maazel and the Philharmonia in Mahler’s Fifth and Das Knaben Wunderhorn

Mahler: Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Matthias Goerne (baritone) Philharmonia Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 5.5.2011 (CG)

Mahler: Das Knaben Wunderhorn (1892-99) – excerpts
Mahler: Symphony no 5 (1901-1902)

Concert reviewers are usually easily identified: they sit with a pen and a small notebook and as the concert proceeds they scribble away, probably driving the person in the next seat mad. Well I’m glad to report that I didn’t irritate anyone this evening, because I made no notes at all, and the reason for that was that I was completely overwhelmed by the music. There’s almost nothing to say other than that the performances were quite marvellous – and exceptionally moving.

First we had six songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn (‘The Youth’s Magic Horn’), which are settings of German folk poetry. Mahler set no fewer than twenty-four of these texts; he was interested in their simplicity and naïveté, which contrasted with the rampant romanticism of Wagner, from which he wished to depart. The language he developed in the songs became very influential in his bigger symphonic works; in some ways they may be regarded as studies for the symphonies, and quotations from them appear in the Fifth Symphony and elsewhere. In performances nowadays, it is usual to select a number of songs – Mahler never considered Das Knaben Wunderhorn to be a song cycle as such.

Sarah Connolly was the soloist in the first three songs, Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, Rheinlegendchen, and Das irdische Leben. These were beautifully sung, with careful avoidance of sentimentality and with much sympathetic accompanying work from Maazel and the orchestra. That Sarah Connolly can do no wrong was amply demonstrated once again tonight – what a superb musician she is.

Next it was the turn of Matthias Goerne to sing three more songs; Urlicht, Revelge, and Der Tamboursg’sell. Goerne is a more demonstrative artist, acting out the texts and delivering  wonderfully characterful and communicative performances. This was absolutely beautiful singing, and once again the accompaniments were extraordinarily vivid, while never overwhelming the singer.

The songs formed a perfect foil for the main work which followed. The Fifth Symphony’s five movements were regarded by Mahler as falling into three parts; the first comprises movements one and two, which are extremely tortured and dramatic. The second consists of the central scherzo, a life affirming dance-like movement. The third part comprises the famous Adagietto and the last movement, the former uncommonly lyrical and passionate, and the latter exuberant and triumphant. To an extent the ‘programme,’ if you could call it that, is autobiographical. Mahler, in 1901, fell prey to a serious illness, from which it was thought he might not recover – and that is when he was composing the first movement. But by the time he had completed the symphony, he had met and married Alma Schindler, and their first daughter was born in November 1902. The symphony thus takes us from appalling darkness into radiant light. Another feature is the contrapuntal nature of much of the music; while recovering from illness Mahler absorbed Bach’s music, and the fruits of his studies are plentifully apparent.

One of the tasks besetting a conductor of this important work is to judge the pacing of this huge life-drama. There is a tendency with many conductors to exaggerate the dramatic aspects of the first two movements by use of excessive rubato and contrasts of tempo; such performances can easily become plain vulgar. Then, if there’s any wallowing about in the Adagietto, all is definitely lost; it is so vitally important to keep a firm grip on things! That is why a great many people have warmed to Boulez’s performances, which are among the least indulgent. At the same time, if a performance is too ‘matter of fact’ the music’s vitality and expression will obviously suffer. So it is that any conductor taking on Mahler is likely to be walking a tightrope. Perhaps that’s one reason I prefer my Mahler performed by older conductors – experience counts.

Maazel is eighty-one, albeit a pretty sprightly eighty-one. He has the experience, and he knows how to judge the unfolding drama of a complicated long work. There are no real histrionics, no tortured facial expressions, no beads of sweat pouring from the brow. He gets on with the job in hand, getting the tempi just right, beating so firmly and clearly that the orchestra knows exactly where and how to play. If I’m making it sound unemotional, then let’s correct that thought straight away – it’s very emotional! But it’s also dignified. And I believe Maazel is doing his utmost to serve Mahler.

Mahler’s Fifth is a big night for the personnel of any orchestra, but especially the principal trumpet and horn. We knew when Mark David’s trumpet sounded the fanfare which begins the symphony that the brass were going to have a good night. Nigel Black’s brilliant horn playing confirmed it – the famous solo in the scherzo was superb. The brass were faultless throughout and you should have heard the full section sounding the D major chorale at the symphony’s close – I cried! And I would almost like to name every single musician in the orchestra tonight – nobody put a foot wrong from beginning to end. And, by the way, the strings were glorious in the Adagietto, which, while being on the slow side, was beautifully lyrical and intensely passionate by turns. Marvellous.

There are more concerts coming up, between now and October, in this continuing Mahler cycle. It will be fascinating to see how the series unfolds.

Christopher Gunning