Prom 32 – Brahms and some rare early Mahler

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Brahms and Mahler: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Melanie Diener (soprano), Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano), Stuart Skelton (tenor),Christopher Purves (baritone), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner. Royal Albert Hall, London, 7.8.2011. (JPr)

Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major

Mahler: Das klagende Lied (original version)

I have made the odd barbed comment about the printed Proms programmes over the years mainly because it often seemed you needed to have a music degree to be able to understand them. Much as I admire David Matthews, his introduction to Das klagende Lied this time did not properly prepare those new to this work adequately for what they were about to hear. It almost made it out to be just another song cycle rather than a cantata with an – admittedly loose – single narrative. This was a bit glossed over as ‘Two brothers seek the hand of a queen; the younger finds a red flower which will win her favour; the elder brother kills the younger, steals the flower and claims the queen for his bride. A minstrel finds one of the younger brother’s bones and makes a flute from it; the flute, when played, tells the story of the murder; the minstrel plays the flute at the wedding to the horrified guests, and the castle falls to the ground, engulfing all.’

What a very operatic synopsis you might think but we do not acquaint Mahler, the composer, with opera. Why is this? It is because Mahler – the conductor- was best known in his lifetime for his work in the theatre and not in the concert hall. Many would have you believe that since his symphonies have an inner – and often quasi-biographical – spiritual journey it is enough justification for saying Mahler would not have written an opera had he been able to. In his too short life he was in debt for most of the time and like many of us it meant ‘I owe, I owe, so off to work I go’ and his work in the opera house, as well as his later ill-health, meant there was no time for such a big commitment as the composition of an opera. Also as a ‘man of the theatre’ he knew that the performance practices of his time would probably never match his ambition, so without a patron and opera house of his own – like his revered Wagner – he used the short time he had for the composition of song cycles and symphonies.

Das klagende Lied , his entry for the Beethoven Prize in 1881 while still a student at the Vienna Conservatoire, looks backwards not only to Wagner but even further to Weber, another composer Mahler idolised. It also looks forwards to the polytonality of the twentieth century, as well as to his own later compositions. It was based on a fairy-tale retold by Ludwig Bechstein and the Brothers Grimm. The 19-year-old Mahler completed the three-movement score in 1880 but it failed to win the Beethoven Prize and he had to wait until 1901 for it to be performed, and then only after Mahler had twice revised the orchestration and removed Part 1 altogether. Often performances are given of Part 1 (Waldmärchen) coupled with Parts 2 ( Der Spielmann) and 3 (Hochzeitsstück) in Mahler’s revision, but at the Proms the whole cantata was heard as first conceived by Mahler and with the original orchestration. In this form perhaps it is a little too long, not in a musical sense, but because the story of Part 1 repeats itself in the following parts.

It remains only semi-operatic as there is no character development nor any arias and as a cantata it demands that the voices are often subsumed within the music. There are also no great themes that are explored, though perhaps influenced by the Ring, Das klagende Lied deals with theft and retribution. Here Edward Gardner – conducting and looking like Christian Thielemann – seemed entirely at ease with the Mahler idiom and his attention to detail enhanced both its Romantic glow and the more intimate pastoral Wunderhorn moments. He expertly knitted together the various episodes and gave each a mood entirely appropriate to the slowly unfolding drama. He was helped in this by the BBC Symphony Orchestra that played for him with total commitment and great refinement. From beginning to end, Gardner and all the musicians concerned produced a most compelling argument for more regular performances of this rare early Mahler. The vast Royal Albert Hall allowed for myriad wonderful theatrical touches and the hunting horns and bird calls benefitted from this, as did the other-worldly contributions from the offstage orchestra in the Balcony.

I was not as happy with the singing; the six treble soloists – the first time I have seen a children’s choir used – were impeccable, apart from one exposed high note; the enhanced BBC Singers sang well together, though with poor diction and the men were weak when singing in smaller groups. When no one soloist has very much to sing I believe the quartet needed could be four young British singers, given an opportunity to gain vital experience. As if to underline this, the singing of British baritone, Christopher Purves, formerly of ‘Harvey and the Wallbangers’, was well-focussed and excellent throughout. However Stuart Skelton’s and Melanie Diener’s few lines might have been as well sung by two members from the choir. Anna Larsson is usually reliable in Mahler but her slight tentativeness and introspection might have been due to the fact that she was a rather late-replacement for a previously announced singer.

For me the Mahler over-shadowed the first half of the concert. This consisted of Brahms’s Violin Concerto, which is considered as one of the finest achievements in the solo violin repertoire. Brahms dedicated this three-movement Romantic concerto to his lifelong friend, the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim who gave its first performance in 1879. Here Christian Tetzlaff – who held his violin like a ukulele during the eloquent orchestral opening – made light of its technical demands and in Edward Gardner had a conductor who was in great sympathy with his soloist. It was an intensely assured, focussed, spacious and robust account, not very passionate, so the often-used ‘noble’ never seemed more appropriate for this concerto. Job done. Tetzlaff’s Bach Gavotte encore, however exquisite and delicately played, seemed totally unnecessary.

Jim Pritchard