An Emotional and Apt Memorial to Hans-Werner Henze

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Busoni, Mahler: Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano), Christian Elsner (tenor), Tonhalle Orchestra, David Zinman (conductor),  Tonhalle, Zurich, 28.10.2012 (JR)

Busoni: Berceuse élégiaque
Mahler: The Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde)

Susan Graham Photo (C) Dari


Zinman and his Zurich forces now complete their highly-praised Mahler cycle with Mahler’s late work, the Song of the Earth. This is not often a crowd-puller and sure enough the hall had plenty of empty seats. Sad, as this was a performance of the highest quality. Luckily for all, a recording will now be made with the same forces.

The Intendant of the Tonhalle, Elmar Weingarten, came out on stage at the start of the concert and my heart sank – did one of the soloists have a throat infection (Zurich was blanketed in unusually deep snow for late October) or did David Zinman’s back prevent him from appearing? No, it was an announcement of Hans Werner Henze’s death the day before and the concert would therefore be dedicated to his memory. Weingarten, with an audible lump in this throat, told us he had recently visited Henze and some of Henze’s music will be performed later in the Tonhalle’s season. Weingarten apparently heard his very first Lied von der Erde with Henze on the podium.

The two works in this concert were most appropriately matched. The Busoni will have been unknown to the majority of the audience; indeed it was unknown to this reviewer. Busoni wrote his short 10-minute piece as a memorial to the death, in 1909, of his mother. The work, subtitled “Des Mannes Wiegenlied am Sarge seiner Mutter” (“A man’s crib song beside the coffin of his mother”) also carries the inscription “The child’s cradle rocks, the hazard of his fate reels; life’s path fades, fades away into the eternal distance.” Or as Mahler put it more succinctly “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod”. I was expecting some Schoenbergian atonality but instead experienced a work of wistful and delicate beauty and utter calm. It was performed by a much reduced orchestra consisting of some strings, woodwind, 4 horns, gong, harp and celesta. At one point, when the celesta came in, I thought I was listening to late Mahler.

The Berceuse élégiaque was premiered in New York City in February 1911 in a concert conducted by the ailing Mahler. The occasion was, as it turns out, the great composer/conductor’s final public appearance. Das Lied von der Erde was created at around the same time – Bruno Walter conducted the première at the end of 1911 in Munich, six months after Mahler’s death.

After a short pause for reflection, the remaining orchestral members came on stage for the Song of the Earth. The work also deals with departing and death. It matters not whether one regards it as a symphonic work in the form of a song cycle or a collection of songs with symphonic overtones. More important is that Mahler – not yet 50 – realised his days were numbered. He had just completed his bombastic and visionary Eighth Symphony. Now he turned inwards and wrote what he considered his most personal work, taking ancient Chinese literature as material for the songs. Zinman is a renowned Mahlerian and the Song of the Earth is clearly dear to his heart. In the programme he notes that no other work is more important to him and that the world would be a much poorer place without it.

Christian Elsner Photo (c) Anne Hoffman

The performance was accordingly full of emotion and precision, given that a recording is imminent. The soloists, Susan Graham and Christian Elsner were well nigh perfect. Elsner, who studied with Fischer-Dieskau, had sufficient volume to ride the large orchestral tuttis in the drinking songs and ample breath for the long and very high top notes. The tenor part in this piece is rather thankless and audibly taxing. No problems whatsoever with diction of course, nor was there with Susan Graham whose register was best suited perhaps to the fourth song “Von der Schönheit”; she was however radiant and moving throughout.

Simon Fuchs, principal oboe, stood out for his many contributions; the whole orchestra however added to making this concert an uplifting experience. Look out for the recording, out soon.

John Rhodes