An Uneven Concert of Schubert and Mahler

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert and Mahler: Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Robert Dean Smith (tenor), Philharmonia Orchestra/Josep Pons (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 16.10.2016. (MB)

Schubert – Symphony No.8 in B minor, ‘Unfinished’, D.759
MahlerDas Lied von der Erde

First Christoph von Dohnányi had to withdraw, then, at the last minute, Matthias Goerne. Schubert and Mahler remained, though, alongside the Philharmonia Orchestra and Robert Dean Smith. They were joined by Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Josep Pons, in a decent enough concert, which neither truly disappointed, nor truly inspired, although I must admit that I felt more moved at the end of Das Lied von der Erde than I had done during its performance: testament, no doubt, to the enduring greatness of the work itself.

Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony probably received the better of the two performances. The first movement’s opening was dark – how could it not be? – although I have certainly heard darker, not least from Bernard Haitink, in an identical programme with the LSO a few years ago. The Philharmonia’s playing was cultivated throughout, a keen sense on offer of the players listening to each other as chamber musicians. Pons proved somewhat rhetorical at times, arguably a little too much, but not unduly disruptively. I was struck once again by the harmonic daring and sheer darkness of the developmental night of the soul: there were no extraneous histrionics applied to the music, simply a sense of a great Romantic speaking truth about our human condition. A shadow, then, was cast over a nevertheless variegated recapitulation, the coda proving both dignified and defiant. The second movement flowed well, although its pulse was perhaps a little too close to that of its predecessor. Mood was contrasted enough nevertheless, if somewhat bright for my taste at times. Darker passages received their due, though, and there was a concluding sense of contentment in culmination.

Das Lied von der Erde took a while, arguably a movement, to settle down. The opening was brusque, even brash. Woodwind shrillness made its point, but Pons drove too hard all in all. One can hardly fail to feel sympathy for the poor tenor in this work, but Dean Smith’s unpleasantness of tone sounded distinctly superannuated. He almost always managed to make himself heard, though. ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ was more sympathetically conducted, flowing in a way one might trace back to Schubert. There was strength beneath the surface too. Wyn-Rogers proved dignified and sincere: the Mahlerian heart was certainly weary, but humanity nevertheless survived. The third movement proved nicely rhythmical, with necessary flexibility. Dean Smith had the notes, but his expressionless delivery did little for me. ‘Von der Schönheit’ had a welcome sense of symphonic ‘following on’. Occasional lapses in orchestral ensemble surprised, although they were nothing too grievous. Both orchestra and voice imparted a sense of the pictorial, courting comparison with Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, without any danger of veering into contradiction between ‘drama’ and ‘music’. Dean Smith’s charmless, colourless singing overshadowed some at least of the considerable orchestral detail to be heard in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’. His vibrato was on the wide side, even for me. Pons conducted it briskly, but not without feeling: probably the best course of action in the circumstances.

Mahler marks the opening to ‘Der Abschied’ schwer, heavy; and that was just how it sounded. Mezzo, flute arabesques, and cello pedal soon combined to underline the music’s – our – desolation. If Wyn Rogers’s intonation were not always perfect, musical and poetic sense was always conveyed: a far more important thing. Schoenberg seemed already to be with us in some of the orchestral textures – which he is, to all intents and purposes. Pons was sometimes a little deliberate, underlining figures that might have flowed, even flown, more freely, but I should not exaggerate. A cold wind indeed blew at times, chilling me to the bone, but there was consolation, if far from unalloyed, to be had through the bitterness, the sardonicism, the ghostly, echt-Mahlerian marionettes. If the orchestral interlude, if one can call it that, sounded a little thin of tone to begin with, it grew in symphonic stature, reminding us that this is not ‘just’ a song-cycle. The ‘liebe Erde’ was, ultimately, what we heard and felt; it was that Earth that won through.

Why oh why, though, the instant applause? Are these people not only hard of hearing, but hard of humanity?

Mark Berry

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