Switzerland Mendelssohn, Ravel and Mahler: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Matthias Goerne (baritone), Lionel Bringuier (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich, 5.11.15. (JR)
Mendelssohn – “Hebrides” Overture, “Fingal’s Cave”
Ravel – “Mother Goose” Suite
Mahler – “Kindertotenlieder”
Ravel – Rhapsodie espagnol
This concert was always going to be an entertaining mixed bag of a programme, with some rather deep contemplation after the interval.
Mendelssohn travelled to Scotland in 1829 and visited the island of Staffa in the Hebrides. On the continent the piece he then wrote as a souvenir of his visit is usually called the “Hebrides Overture” whilst in the UK it is known better as “Fingal’s Cave” (apparently both names appear on the original score). Nowadays few people visit it, I suspect, but conjured up as one listens to the music are a sad and forlorn place, a raging sea, high cliffs and swirling seagulls. Coming from Leipzig, a long way from any ocean swell, the rugged western coast of Scotland and the wild Atlantic would have made a lasting impression on Mendelssohn (and made him seasick). The overture made for a fine curtain raiser but no more really than a warm-up piece for the orchestra. The high spot was the principal clarinet, Mike Reid, fittingly a Scot.
Bringuier and Ravel go together like hand and glove; he shows innate sensitivity to Ravel’s exotic soundscape with its lush orchestral palette. We heard the “Mother Goose” Suite (“Ma mere l’Oye”) in its ballet version; it is music of great almost childlike delicacy and even the almost continuous bronchial contributions from my neighbours in the Balcony could not distract me from the music’s charm, particularly the tinkling celesta (Peter Solomon) and cor anglais (Martin Frutiger).
The emotional heart and soul of this concert followed after the interval. Gustav Mahler was the second of fourteen children. Five of his siblings died when still infants while three others did not live till mature adulthood. We easily forget nowadays, with the advent of modern medicine and antibiotics, how prevalent were infant and premature deaths even just a hundred years ago. Baritone Matthias Goerne must be the leading proponent of these songs nowadays; he gave us a moving yet not over-sentimentalised account of the “Kindertotenlieder”. In an interview a few days ago in the Tagesanzeiger (one of the two dailies in Zurich) Goerne pointed out that he tries not to over-dramatise the songs, one should not sing them as though one had just lost a child. Mahler in fact had not lost one of his daughters until some years after he wrote these songs (so they were a premonition) – Alma Mahler was horrified by the songs and felt perhaps they were a bad omen.
Mahler sets to music five touching poems by Friedrich Rückert, one of his favourite poets, who bemoans the loss of his two children. Goerne, singing without score, was able to use his hands most expressively, swaying (almost dancing) from side to side as he sang. His rich deep velvety baritone was never loud; the whole song cycle was a master-class in meaningful interpretation, intonation, breathing and the clearest of diction. Anguish was kept to a minimum, but there were many affecting moments as when the children reach paradise “as in mother’s home”. Bringuier kept his hands aloft at the end and no-one, thankfully, wanted to break the silence.
You cannot send an audience away on a sombre note, so Bringuier gave us some more Ravel, his Rhapsodie Espagnol. The silken strings of the first violins, ably led by Julia Becker, impressed in the “Prélude à la nuit”, then after a short and sweet “Malagueňa” and a delicate and charming “Habaňéra” we ended, appropriately for Bonfire Night (though celebrated on the continent at midnight on 31st December rather than in celebration of Guy Fawkes on 5th November) with an almost pyrotechnic Iberian explosion of castanets, tambourine and cascading celesta in the final “Feria”.