Johan Reuter Brings Mahler Songs to Life

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Rihm, Mahler, Shostakovich: Johan Reuter (baritone), BBC Symphony Orchestra/Ingo Metzmacher.,Barbican Hall, London, 25.5.2013 (CC)

Rihm: Nähe fern 1 (UK premiere)
Mahler: Des knaben Wunderhorn (selection)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905”

It was good to see some Wolfgang Rihm on a UK programme. Nähe fern 1 is the first of four such pieces, each designed to link to a Brahms Symphony and which can be performed alongside the relevant symphony. Nähe fern 1 ends in C minor, so cue Brahms No. 1 …. or some Mahler, as in this instance.

The title, which refers to blurrings of perspective, comes from Goethe, (“Dämmrung senkte sich von oben / Schon ist alle Nähe fern” – “Twilight sank from high above / All that was near already is far”). These are lines that have inspired a number of composers, from Fanny Mendelssohn to Schoeck via Brahms, and it is easy to see why in their archetypical Romantic language and their allusion, surely, to the world of the Wanderer. One might translate the title as “distant proximity”. Rihm’s complex language supports crepuscular evocation massively well; in the twilight, perspectives can become confused. Paul Griffiths, in his programme note, describes the grumbling, chthonic opening as “a sense of Brahms or Mahler recomposed by Webern”, although he doesn’t say which Webern . I suspect he means the earlier Webern of Op. 1, given the occasional “warm” harmony that lands in the opening minutes?.

The piece is a symphonic adagio of some ten minutes’ duration. The language refers, to my ears, in its expressionist lines more to early Schoenberg (think Pelleas und Melisande). Particular mention should go to principal horn Nicholas Korth’s extended solo, rendered in meltingly lyrical fashion here. Metzmacher shaped the performance well, rising from chthonic depths and returning there. Ten minutes later.

But the clear highlight of the evening was the clutch of Mahler songs sung by Johan Reuter. Whatever Reuter’s technical strengths (and there are many), his primary strength here and what made these readings so extraordinary is his ability to tell a story. So it was that St Antony’s sermon to the fishes (“Des Antonius von Padua fischpredigt”), varied in tone and delivered with stunning diction, became a real experience, a transportation to the mythic realm of youth’s magic horn.

The orchestra seemed to give its best in these songs: the restrained brass fanfares that open “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” were massively evocative, the woodwind echoes perfectly balanced before leading on to a gossamer web of strings at “Das ist der Herzallerliebste dein”. Here, Reuter was at his sweetest. In contrast, “Revelge” is more robust, and again orchestra and singer were chameleon-like in their responses to Mahler’s demands. The BBCSO’s strings’ trills were perfectly managed; Reuter used a lighter voice initially, making the orchestra’s sudden interjections, so perfectly Mahlerisch, all the more effective. Metzmacher was able to change the atmosphere of the song completely just before the final stanza.

Most listeners will know “Urlicht” from its position in the Second Symphony, and therefore be used to a female voice. It is just as effective with a male, as Reuter showed, with tremendous breath control and concentration. I say ‘most listeners will know’ as this might have been the reason there was applause at the end of it (either that or Barbican audiences can’t count up to five these days) – swiftly waved down by Metzmacher.

Perhaps “Der Tambourg’sell”, the last of the group, contains all that is typically Mahlerian. The trudge of the march, the double-edged “Good night”, the nightmarish imagery. The oppressive atmosphere was bleakly, believably created; Reuter’s beautiful, resonant “Gute Nacht, ihr Offizier” the perfect close.

Not quite Good Night though, for there was a full symphony to come. We are now over a decade away from a performance in this very hall by Rostropovich and the LSO that will resonate forever in my memory (March 2002, and recorded by LSO Live – although that can never come close to recreating the full-on concentration in the hall – the disc is reviewed on Musicweb by Marc Bridle). Metzmacher’s reading was good in parts but whereas Slava made us reappraise the symphony from scratch and enabled us to leave the hall thinking it a masterwork, Metzmacher almost confirmed its lowly status. While in Rostropovich’s hands the music took film music gestures and subsumed them within an entirely symphonic, organic structure, Metzmacher made us feel the gestures were culled from film music and sewn together into something the composer decided on a whim to call a symphony. The basic elements of the first movement, “Palace Square”, were there – the glacial opening, some wonderful muted trumpet playing and the structure unfolding easily. But the vital, chilly atmosphere was lacking. Some parts of the difficult second movement, “The Ninth of January”, were decidedly careful, although there was some fire in evidence, and the shifting strings did well. But the aggregates of sound were not properly managed, and certainly not overwhelming.

A word of praise should certainly go to the BBCSO’s viola section, for their extended lachrymose lines in “Eternal Memory”; similarly Alison Teare’s cor anglais solo at the work’s close was deeply affecting. But Metzmacher had misjudged the final movement, and the return of the opening movement. The climax was not enough to contrast with its return, and with it much of the work’s power was lost.

Colin Clarke