United Kingdom Mahler: Bo Skovhus (bar) & Stefan Vladar (piano). Queen’s Hall, 13.8.2011 (SRT)
Nine Early Songs
Der Abschied (from Das Lied von der Erde)
Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall makes a perfect venue for intimate recitals and beginning this year’s EIF Queen’s Hall series with the always intelligent Bo Skovhus was a much-anticipated treat. In the event, though, the performance was rather mixed. Skovhus, who normally sings with a tone of the highest refinement and mahogany richness, at times seemed insecure and even a little pinched. His interpretations of Mahler’s Wunderhorn-inspired Early Songs weren’t helped by his tendency for face-pulling and ham acting. The faster songs seemed to find him ill at ease: while his vocal colour was still there and recognizable, the Grade A richness that makes him such a sought after and well respected performer was much thinner on the ground. Things improved for the slower songs where he found the much needed space to open out and breathe through the music, achieving greater insights for Ich bin der Welt and Um Mitternacht from the Rückert selection. Der Abschied was an ambitious choice, even though it fits in well with the Festival’s Asia theme, inspired as it is by Chinese poetry, and it didn’t always pay off with the minor key sections sometimes sounding intentionally pained and melodramatic.
The real hero of the performance was Stefan Vladar, whose outstandingly dynamic pianism meant that I never once missed the more familiar orchestral versions of these songs. Under his hands the keyboard was a riot of colour, sparkling and breathing as the music required, and illustrating the songs almost as convincingly as the full orchestra, be it the filigree oscillations of Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder or the Alphorn and fanfares of Zum Strassburg auf der Schanz. In fact, it was thanks to him rather than to Skovhus that you could hear traces of Mahler’s later masterpieces in the Early Songs, be it the Wunderhorn Drummer-boy in Zum Strassburg or the pre-echoes of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in Frühlingsmorgen or Ich ging mit Lust. He perfectly recreated the long-breathed stillness of Ich bin der Welt and opened up tremendous caverns of sound and meaning in Um Mitternacht, while the plaintive bird cries of Der Abschied sounded every bit as moving on his piano as they do on an orchestral oboe. So this was a morning that still contained revelations, even if it wasn’t entirely satisfying.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until 4th September in a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages.