SCO’s Das Lied von der Erde is Thrilling and Moving

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Mahler: Karen Cargill (mezzo), Toby Spence (tenor), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Robin Ticciati (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 16.3.2013 (SRT)

Haydn: Symphony No. 60 “Il Distratto”

Mahler (arr. Cortese): Das Lied von der Erde

It seems strange to have a chamber orchestra playing Mahler, even if it is an orchestra like the SCO that has previously displayed its mettle in over-sized works like the Symphonie Fantastique. In fact, however, Glen Cortese’s arrangement of Das Lied von der Erde fits this orchestra like a tailor-made suit, and this evening brought some of the most thrilling Mahler playing I have heard in years. Just as when they played the Adagietto last week, it felt as if they had opened the shutters on Das Lied and let in a gust of fresh air, blowing off the cobwebs and opening up the textures in a way that will live with me for a long time. The problem of drowning the tenor still remains; even with a chamber orchestra he is still all but overwhelmed at the end of Das Trinklied. But elsewhere there are only gains and I repeatedly had my attention drawn to things that can disappear between the cracks of a full scale symphony orchestra. Surprisingly, the biggest revelations came in Der Trunkene im Frühling where the quirkiness of Mahler’s orchestration came out sounding totally fresh, the rippling winds, playful strings and glittering percussion all working with Toby Spence’s tenor to create a sound that was marvellously alive. Elsewhere, the solo lines, such as the meandering oboe at the start of Der Einsame in Herbst, felt as if they had been newly revealed and brought up close, and the delicate colour at the end of Von der Schönheit was especially lovely. The terrifying clatter of the winds lent extra horror to Das Trinklied and, at the other extreme, I have never heard the beginning of Der Abschied sound so mesmerising.

With playing of such clarity and class there was no danger that the orchestra would serve as mere backdrop. Instead they served to offset a very fine pair of soloists. I can’t imagine that Toby Spence’s lyrical tenor would normally go anywhere near such repertoire played by a heavy symphony orchestra but, with the exception mentioned above of Das Trinklied, he sounded quite at home, his honeyed tenor fitting the central songs surprisingly well while managing a sufficient slice of terror for the opening. My previous experience of Karen Cargill has shown that she is utterly at home in Mahler, and so it proved tonight. Her fruity mezzo was on luxuriant form, and she showed the palpable attention to the words that characterises the best lieder singers. She piloted her way through the huge span of Der Abschied with masterful clarity, depicting the nocturnal scene with exquisite delicacy before swelling into the majestic final pages and the Mahler’s great farewell on the repetitions of ewig. The valedictory ending found her in tears, a natural reaction from a performer who was giving her all.

Anchoring the whole great work together, however, was the sure hand of Robin Ticciati. His is not (yet) a name that we naturally associate with this composer, but he showed himself to be already a Mahlerian of distinction, directing the whole enterprise with both an architectural view of structural integrity and a sharp ear for fine detail. It makes me tingle to think of what he might do with Mahler with a full scale symphony orchestra. I got the intangible impression that he, too, was deeply moved by the final pages, and he held the silence after the final chord for what felt like an age. The SCO announced this week that Ticciati has extended his contract as Principal Conductor until 2018. At the season launch on Thursday night he made it clear that this is an orchestra he loves, and this evening was proof of what he can do with them when they push boundaries and stretch to new things. Bring on the next five years!

After a performance as intense as this, however, it’s almost a struggle to remember that Haydn opened the programme! His 60th symphony is partly comprised of incidental music that he wrote for a play, Il Distratto, or The Absent-Minded Man. It’s playful, buoyant and surprising as Haydn places together blocks of melody that don’t necessarily go together that well. In the last movements however, the symphony appears more schizophrenic than absent-minded as the music veers off into unexpected and unexplained territories, not least when a group of strings go hilariously off note in the finale. It’s good fun, but still a pretty odd bedfellow for Das Lied von der Erde!

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra have just released the details of the 2013-14 season. For full details click here.

Simon Thompson