United Kingdom Prom 41 – Berlioz, Matthews, Mahler: Leonard Elschenbroich (cello); Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano); Gregory Kunde (tenor); Hallé/Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 16.8.2016. (CC)
Berlioz, Overture, King Lear
Colin Matthews, Berceuse for Dresden (London premiere)
Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde (first movement arr. C. Matthews)
This was a fascinating programme. Sir Mark Elder has long been doing sterling work up in Manchester, and it is clear the good work continues. Berlioz’s rarely heard King Lear Overture vied with the London premiere of a piece by Colin Matthews; and the concert closed with a Mahler Song of the Earth that was performed with Matthews’ arrangement of the first movement.
Berlioz’ 1831 Overture came across as rather long and diffuse. The story of the events around the composition is a Romantic saga in itself, with Berlioz shunned by a lady (who was going off to marry the piano maker, Pleyel) as a result of which the composer was fully intent on the murder of both his rival and his ex. Instead, he wrote this impassioned piece. It could hardly have asked for a more committed performance, the antiphonally-placed violins of the opening excellently together, a lovely oboe solo from Stéphane Rancourt and a simply gorgeously-toned trombone section. Highlights all, but the whole was hardly the sum of its parts. Berlioz’s characteristic voice remains instantly recognisable, and it was a fine idea to give the piece an outing, but here it emerged as not wholly satisfying fare.
Colin Matthews’ 2005 piece Berceuse for Dresden was written to commemorate the rebuilding of that city’s Frauenkirche, a building that suffered Allied bombing in 1945. Taking the sounds and overtones of the church’s eight bells as the basis for the material, the work contains, by the composer’s own admission, ‘strong elements of turbulence and lament’. It’s not quite a textbook berceuse, then, but certainly a poignant statement. The warmth of the opening harmonies, the baleful bells and the very songful, tremendously expressive solo cello of the excellent Leonard Eischenbroich all impressed. Furthermore, some simply magical scoring – Matthews has long had a deft hand with orchestration – and some insistent shards of sound all made for a massively intense experience. The off-stage bell that concludes the piece echoed around the Kensington space poignantly.
Finally, Mahler’s Das Lied was heard with Colin Matthews’ arrangement of the first movement – or re-orchestration, possibly. It chimed in well with Elder’s light, considered approach. Tenor Gregory Kunde, a Proms debut artist, recently made his debut at Covent Garden as Manrico in Trovatore, and he certainly has the range for Mahler’s great challenge ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’. He is a lyrical singer, and Matthews’ trimming of the textures meant everything was heard perfectly.
It was back to Mahler alone for the rest of this magnificent work. Kunde’s remaining movements were characterised by an excellent sense of pitch (‘Von der Jugend’, in a performance that seemed rather too smooth from Elder) and some beautifully clean and unrestrained singing (“Der Lenz ist da” from ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’). But it was the much-loved Alice Coote who shone brightest. Her opening in the second song, ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ introduced us to not only her superb diction but also the sheer loveliness of her sound; her blanched tone at the line “Mein Herz ist müde” in that same song was one of the performance’s highlights. Coote’s account of ‘Von der Schönheit’ caught all of the frozen-in-time beauty of the saga, but it was in the concluding half-hour ‘Der Abschied’ that she truly became one with the music. Rich-voiced, blessed with perfect slurs and able to project all the requisite longing at “Ich sehne mich, o Freund, an deiner Seite”. Orchestral contributions rose to their finest, too, with oboist Stéphane Rancourt once more excelling, here conveying the exquisite loneliness of the protagonist’s situation. It was a pity that Elder let the tension sag in the lead-up to the blossoming at “O Schönheit, o ewigen Liebens”, but the final moments were expertly judged by all – and instrumentally crowned by some lovely cor anglais playing from Hugh McKenna).
This was a good, if not life-changing Das Lied, therefore, offering eloquent testimony that the Hallé remains an orchestra in fine fettle.