Inspiring Singing in Das Lied von der Erde

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler, Brahms: Diana Moore (mezzo-soprano), Daniel Norman (tenor), Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra / David Curtis (conductor), All Saints’ Church, Cheltenham, 6.10.2012. (RJ)

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Brahms: Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op 68

How can one categorise Das Lied von der Erde: as a song cycle, a symphony or a combination of both? Mahler himself entitled it Symphony for tenor, contralto and large orchestra while Bruno Walter described it as “the most personal utterance among Mahler’s creations, and perhaps in all music”. It came at one of the low points of the composer’s life: his eldest daughter had just died, he had been forced to resign from the directorship of the Court Opera in Vienna and – to top it all – he had been diagnosed with heart trouble. Somehow he needed a way to express, or perhaps to bury, his sorrows.

The inspiration from the work is Chinese poetry by Li Tai-po, Chang Tai and others which had been freely translated into German. From the very start of the concert one entered a sound world very different from the Austro-German musical tradition with percussion and dissonance in the woodwind and brass section. Daniel Norman created a sense of the exotic and distant places in The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth where the jollity is something of a sham. Each verse ends with the reminder “Dunkel is das Leben, ist der Tod” (Dark is life, is death). Mr Norman’s second song, Of Youth, depicted a more sophisticated gathering of poets and philosophers in a porcelain pavilion in the middle of a lake – a delicately sung episode with sparse accompaniment. The tenor gave an engagingly good-humoured account of The Drunkard in Spring which extols the benefits of drowning one’s sorrows with wine.

There was an overwhelming sense of desolation in The Lonely One in Autumn poignantly communicated by Diana Moore helped by some gentle contributions from solo flute and oboe. Indeed much of the music is intimate – more like chamber music. This is late autumn when the leaves have fallen from the trees and a cold wind is blowing; the plea Gib mir Ruh (Grant me rest) was a reflection of deep inner pain. Of Beauty was a more cheerful song about maidens bathing and young men riding by; but the song develops a more personal aspect as one of the girls gazes after a rider with a burning desire. The Farewell – consisting of two Chinese poems and words by Mahler himself – is by far the longest movement of the set and is announced by a clash of cymbals. But this is also the most profound, spiritual and timeless of all, qualities that Diana Moore expressed so perfectly in her singing. As I heard the closing words “Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen ….. ewig …..ewig” ( Everywhere distant spaces shine their blue light) I couldn’t help recalling another singer who made these songs her own – Kathleen Ferrier, whose centenary we have been commemorating this year. Indeed, I am bold to say that this performance was very much in the Kathleen Ferrier mould.

Originally this concert was scheduled to end with the Mahler, which would have made sound chronological sense. But the organisers clearly decided that it was better to end with a bang rather than a whimper, and bangs don’t come much bigger than the triumphal end to Brahms’ First, though the earlier stages of the symphony have their fair share of tragedy and pathos.

The Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra is not a full-time professional ensemble but it contains many experience and committed players who have responded well over the years to David Curtis’ astute direction. He has pushed the players along some challenging routes – not only to perform Mahler, but also other sizeable works such as Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, so Brahms held no horrors for them. The musicians demonstrated plenty of confidence in the solemn introduction and took the passion and conflict of the allegro in their stride thanks in no small measure to the clarity of the conducting.

The andante sostenuto had a nice lyrical feel in addition to providing consolation, and the third movement intermezzo turned out to be a pleasant, refreshing ramble. There was warmth in the melodious opening to the finale and the orchestra sustained the mood of boisterousness and optimism until the end. Maybe the orchestra fell short of the standards of the Berlin Philharmonic but the musicians partly made up for this with their enthusiasm and verve. I suspect that their debut appearance on the radio station Classic FM earlier in the week will not be their last.

Roger Jones