Maazel’s London Mahler Cycle: The Long Goodbye!

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mahler: Stefan Vinke (tenor), Alice Coote (mezzo soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Lorin Maazel. Royal Festival Hall,London, 29.9.11. (JPr)

Symphony No.10 Adagio
Das Lied von der Erde

I have not been to all of the 2011 Maazel Mahler Cycle but what I have been to I have enjoyed and there was no way I thought a performance of Das Lied von der Erde with Lorin Maazel, the always reliable Philharmonia Orchestra, Alice Coote and Stefan Vinke (fresh from his saving-the-day performances at Bayreuth as Tristan and Walther von Stolzing) would be anything but good: unfortunately I was to be sadly disappointed. Perhaps Maazel was over-relaxed after a summer break – or was put off by the expanse of empty seats in the Festival Hall – but his mind seem elsewhere and whenever the music had the chance to slow down it really got slower and slower. As Der Abschied lingered on and Alice Coote sang ‘Die Welt schläft ein!’, across the aisle a man began to snore gently – those around him, including a female companion, did nothing to bring him out of his slumber … this summed up the evening.

When I picked up my ticket I was handed a slip of paper that suggested that Alice Coote had a viral infection but would still be singing. She is not a singer I have greatly warmed to until now and – as often happens when singers suggest they are under-the-weather – she sang wonderfully well. Only a few moments as the horsemen galloped on in the very challenging Von der Schönheit did her voice betray her a little, though, to his credit, Maazel coaxed her sympathetically through it. Coote’s voice is a little lighter than I hear in my head for these songs that usually required a richer, darker sound but her communication of emotion was exemplary; she brought out with pure and direct singing what can only be described as the ‘true soul’ of Mahler’s music with wonderful vocal chiaroscuro. Her voice perfectly contrasted the multitude of images of darkness in the work against the lighter shimmering moments in the texts and music. Despite all the blue skies, golden sunlight, reflections in the water and white porcelain, Das Lied von der Erde only tells us one thing – and that is that we are all going to die and Alice Coote’s sublimely controlled ‘Ewig’ pianissimos underlined this only too well.

If only her tenor had been as good; however, for Stefan Vinke it was an evening to forget if he thought he would make listeners rush to book (very costly) tickets for the Royal Opera’s 2012 Ring Cycles in which he is to sing Siegfried. He showed no evident signs of strain but his sound had a colourless timbre, was unvaried in tone and almost relentlessly loud. In comparison to Coote he failed to connect with the texts he was singing and in Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, for example, he failed to do anything much with the lines about the ape on the grave. Even in all this Chinoiserie this is an appalling image as the figure represents a triumph for barbarism: this is not a ‘drinking song’ but a protest about how all earthly happiness ends with the inevitability of death – but Vinke gave us none of this.

It must be said that for most of its extravagant 75 minutes Maazel conducted his excellent ensemble with intensity and sincerity and his usual practiced eye for ensuring a perfect balance between voice and orchestra. It was only in the concluding Der Abschied that he began to linger much too long over Mahler’s sonic landscape and things began to unravel and as Alice Coote embraced death with a poignant bittersweet tenderness, I sadly was losing the will to live.

This Das Lied von der Erde was preceded by the Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished (at least by the composer) Tenth Symphony. Thirty minutes came and went for this movement and it outstayed its welcome. It became all just too episodic and Maazel seemed more concerned with micro-managing the musical gear changes than in revealing any great insight into the overall piece. This was such a shame as both these Mahler works are paeans to life and the transcendence of death and are so intrinsically full of his typical love and regret that they should not – indeed must not – leave anybody uninterested or unmoved but that is certainly what happened to me and to that man gently snoring a few seats away.

Finally it was good to see surtitles being used in the Festival Hall even though a translation (in very small print) was available: strangely the two English versions were not the same. Nevertheless, this innovation was good to see and it is long overdue for the BBC Proms to try and come up with something like this.

Jim Pritchard