Harding Concert Exposes Differences between Schubert and Mahler

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert and Mahler: Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano) and Burkhard Fritz (tenor), London Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Harding (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 20.11.2013. (JPr)

Schubert – Symphony No.5

Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde

Mahler and Schubert are a common – somewhat natural – pairing and certainly Bernard Haitink has had a predilection for this in the past with the London Symphony Orchestra. The Austrian composers were both ‘song and dance’ men and shared an interest, among other things, in setting poetry to music and in Ländler and other folk dances. In their all-too-short lives they had increasing predilections for ruminating on the darker side of the human psyche but mostly they are celebrated for their wonderful talent for melodic invention. As Andrew Stewart’s profile of Schubert in the programme note stated: ‘He was able to convey dramatic images and deal with powerful emotions within the space of a few bars, as he so often did in his songs and chamber works.’ It was when he began to use more bars – and the statements became grander in his symphonies – that he paved the way for Bruckner, and by association, Mahler.

Schubert and Mahler each left ten symphonies – some just as fragments – and both seemed to have a more reflective middle-period when they composed mellower smaller-scale works – Schubert’s Fifth and Mahler’s Fourth, for example. It is of great interest that the only movement that we were left with from Schubert’s Tenth Symphony is the slow one and shows the development of his compositional style and this Andante is clearly proto-Mahlerian. However Mahler was not always kind about Schubert’s music in some things he wrote and thought that for all his melodic gifts he was in thrall too much to the formalism of his predecessors, Haydn and Mozart. He may well have been thinking of that Fifth Symphony which we heard in this concert alongside Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Schubert wrote in his diary in 1816 – at the time this Fifth Symphony was composed – ‘O Mozart! immortal Mozart! what countless impressions of a brighter, better life hast thou stamped upon our souls!’

Comparisons began to break down as soon as the concert began because Mahler is rarely small scale in either length or personnel involved. The performances themselves seemed to highlight differences rather than similarities, even though the Schubert performance was an alloyed joy throughout. I was sitting next to someone from the BBC however this seemed a sublime example of one of those ‘Smooth Classics’ played late at night on Classic FM. With a suitably small London Symphony Orchestra ensemble – and the woodwinds in a semi-circle around the conductor to aid the orchestral balance – Daniel Harding’s account was brisk with a warm, rich sound from the strings but with every single woodwind coming through clearly even when playing pianissimo, notably Gareth Davies’ eloquent flute. Throughout, the symphony themes were contrasted clearly, yet where necessary flowed naturally into each other – and the same could be said of the LSO’s sections as they took their turns in the foreground. The Menuetto reminded me of Haitink as the tempo was held back somewhat to emphasise the three-to-a-bar and dwell on Schubert’s workmanship. Once again the refined interplay of the winds raised the peasant-like trio far above the usual folkish romp.

However, an orchestra almost twice the size has a radically different effect, and particularly in the Barbican Hall where the difference in ‘scale’ between Schubert and Mahler became all too apparent.

With his conducting commitments completed in 1908, Mahler went to his summer retreat in the southern Tyrolean village of Toblach for the last three years of his life to start writing music again: there his composing hut still stands inside a small childrens’ zoo surrounded by pigs, goats and chickens. A friend had given Mahler Hans Bethge’s anthology Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), German translations of some 80 Chinese poems. The texts appealed to Mahler and using seven of them, he turned them into the six songs of Das Lied von der Erde. It is the sixth song (Der Abscheid) that includes two of them and, as is to be expected, the composer made his own important alterations to the text.

Highly significant is Mahler’s choice of key signature for each of the songs: 1 Das Trinklied … (Drinking Song …) – A minor; 2 Der Einsame in Herbst (The Lonely One In Autumn) – D minor; 3 Von der Jugend (Youth) – B-flat major/G major; 4  Von der Schönheit (Beauty) – G major; 5 Der Trunkene in Frühling (The Drunkard In Spring) – A major/F major; 6 Der Abscheid (The Farewell) – C minor. Mahler was very superstitious about the finality of ninth symphonies, so with one exception (the second song) he avoids the use of D minor – the key of both Beethoven and Bruckner’s Ninth (and last) Symphonies. (Yet later Mahler’s own Ninth Symphony will be in D minor!) The second song is most clearly about the fear of death, and so the use of D minor for it is undoubtedly not coincidental and the fifth song, perhaps the most despairing of the cycle, ends significantly in F major, the relative major of D minor. The principal key of Der Abscheid is C minor moving finally to C major, the relative major of the A minor in which the work starts.

By its very nature all performances of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde are significant occasions and it something I have heard several times – though generally again avoided during the anniversary years of 2010-11 … and mostly until now. It is most famous for its final movement of transcendent farewell and I do not believe I am alone in believing it was written by someone who believes they only have a tenuous hold on life. There were some striking details in Harding’s account, especially Gareth Davies’ flute once again and the expressivity of leader Roman Simovic’s violin. There were moments of true beauty and I admired the precision of the LSO but it seemed much too loud at times – and particularly overwhelmed Burkhard Fritz, the valiant tenor. All Mahler’s myriad details were present and correct but, for me, it all lacked a little emotional truth. I suspect this had less to do with Daniel Harding and that it was the forthright Barbican Hall acoustics that caused this as it really cannot cope with such large forces at their most rampant. However from where I sat in the stalls both soloist were overwhelmed too often.

I have heard Herr Fritz sing Parsifal and Walther von Stolzing but was surprised how his voice failed to have much carrying power. Musically he was quite secure and attacked the high-lying first song fearlessly but was better in the more introspective passages when there was some pleasant Italianate lyricism to his singing. For ‘The Drunkard In Spring’ the fifth song (his third) there must be some despair here as it advocates getting drunk to get through life. Here Burkhard Fritz was much too convivial, singing – and gesticulating – as if it was a comedy patter song. It is not usual for the tenor in Das Lied to leave me wanting a weightier, more heroic, rendition of greater emotional depth.

I had not been expecting great things from Christianne Stotijn who I have often found underwhelming in the past but her poised and refined singing here was a complete revelation to me through its range and dramatic immediacy: though she was clearly challenged by Harding’s ‘wall of sound’ at times and actually completely submerged during the galloping horses section of ‘Beauty’. Compared to how I have heard her before, Stotijn’s chest register has developed impressively, her diction was impeccable, her phrasing was elegant and she was now psychologically ‘at one’ with the meaning of the texts and determined to bring this over to the audience – her final ‘ewig’ drifting away on a gossamer thread of sound. I look forward to hearing her tackle Brangäne under Daniel Harding’s baton for his next London appearance with the LSO.

Daniel Harding is the new president of the Gustav Mahler Society UK and for more information about their activities visit http://www.mahlersociety.org/.

Jim Pritchard

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