Intimate Wagner and Mahler from Australian Chamber Orchestra

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2016 (1) – Wagner, Mahler: Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Stuart Skelton (tenor), Australian Chamber Orchestra / Richard Tognetti (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 6.8.2016. (SRT)

Wagner: Siegfried Idyll

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (arr. Schoenberg & Riehn)

The Queen’s Hall morning concerts are normally the place where you go on the Edinburgh Festival for the most intimate music-making: song recitals, string quartets, instrumentalists and so on.  So you might think that beginning this year’s programme with Wagner and Mahler might seem to be going in the opposite direction.  After all, there’s nothing like going in big…

Except, that is, when you end up going in small.  In a daringly original start to this year’s Queen’s Hall series, the Australian Chamber Orchestra gave us the arrangement (started by Schoenberg in 1920 and finished by Rainer Reihn in 1983) of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde for only 17 musicians plus the two singers.  Mahler’s great “song symphony” is most often associated with huge orchestras and a tenor who struggles to make himself heard over the cacophony, but this sensitive arrangement brings us, if anything, even closer to the composer’s death-haunted world of farewell.

The frigid isolation of the alto songs, particularly Der Einsame in Herbst come across as even more cool and haunted because you can hear right through the orchestral texture, revealing every pellucid, albeit limited, detail.  Alice Coote was on peak form, too, with none of the vocal mannerisms that have marred some of her performances in the past, culminating in a rich outpouring of emotion at the very end of Der Abschied, so powerful because so sensitively withheld.  Stuart Skelton seemed to be holding his powerful voice in check in the Queen’s Hall’s more intimate acoustic, but having a tenor of his strength combined with a chamber ensemble meant that the darkest (and noisiest) moment in the score, where the ape sits among the tombstones, was almost uniquely powerful.

Richard Tognetti directed the orchestra from his position as leader, only occasionally breaking off to give them a clear beat, indicating both long collaboration and careful rehearsal time.  I found his way with the Siegfried Idyll even more convincing, controlling the piece’s ebb and flow with seemingly effortless élan.  Using 13 instruments, just as at the Tribschen premiere, gave the sound a beautifully warm glow, moving from the intimacy of the opening (on string quartet only) to a full ensemble sound coloured by wonderfully characterful winds and horns.  It’s a mark of truly impressive quality from this group of musicians.  If you want to hear them in something completely different, they’re accompanying Barry Humphries and Meow Meow in two evenings of Weimar Cabaret next week (reviewed recently by Jim Pritchard).

Simon Thompson

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and will be broadcast on Friday 12th August.  You will be able to listen to it here.

The 2016 Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 29th August at venues across the city.  For full details go to

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