United Kingdom Haydn, Mahler: Karen Cargill (mezzo), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 29.1.2015 (SRT)
Haydn: Symphony No. 70
Mahler (arr. Cortese): Das Lied von der Erde
One of Robin Ticciati’s more recent achievements as Principal Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has been to make the orchestra much more familiar with the music of Mahler, someone who, as Karen Cargill writes in her programme note, is “an unusual bedfellow for a chamber orchestra!” This season began with Symphony No. 4 and several of the song cycles will show up this year, too. I suspect, though, that this performance of Das Lied von der Erde will turn out to be something of a highlight.
I mentioned previously that Cortese’s arrangement inevitably lacks some of the power of the full symphony orchestral version (something which is most damaging in the opening song), but it brings the advantage of transparency and clarity. This is particularly apparent in the mezzo’s songs, not least because the instrumental solos can stand out so much more; the oboe in Der Einsame in Herbst, the flute in Der Abschied. It also allows an extra touch of raucousness to the tenor songs, though, most amiably the drunken horns in the fifth song, and another benefit of this arrangement is that the tenor doesn’t have to struggle so much to be heard over the tumult of the first movement. Simon O’Neill’s tone can be abrasive at times, but this made him an unusually neat fit for the first song, his voice piercing the orchestral texture with clarity and precision, something he maintained in the other songs, too.
Karen Cargill has really made her home in Mahler’s music, so much so that he now feels like natural territory for her. Her voice manages to be lustrous yet dusky at the same time, uniquely focused on the emotional business in hand, and as interested in telling the story in the text as she is in the music. She has done a lot of Mahler recently and, in the two years that separated her 2013 performance from this one, her interpretation has matured and deepened. The top can still be a little cloudy in places – most noticeably in the high writing of Der Abschied – but I wondered as I listened whether anyone can currently touch her in this repertoire?
Ticciati has developed as a Mahler conductor, too. He knows Das Lied better now, so is more able to let go and trust himself and his players with this music. The orchestra also trust him implicitly. This is far from their bread and butter repertoire, but under Ticciati it has become more familiar to them, and that interplay of the familiar and the new produces dynamic playing that is brilliantly alive to every nuance. Only in the great span of Der Abschied did Ticciati’s pace feel a little unsteady, as well as too fast: it felt a little episodic, by numbers, almost, as if hurrying from section to section. The ending, while very beautiful, and featuring Cargill producing a stunning pianissimo, felt a little detached. Still, this was a great achievement, one which made the Haydn opening feel a little incidental, for all its delicacy and flair.