Orchestrally Revelatory Performances of Strauss and Mahler by the LSO


Strauss and Mahler: Simon O’Neill (tenor), Christian Gerhaher (baritone), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 13.12.2017. (JPr)

Strauss – Metamorphosen

Mahler Das Lied von der Erde

The evening began with Metamorphosen, Strauss’s 1945 E flat ’study for 23 solo string players’ (10 violins, 5 violas, 5 cellos and 3 double basses). There are overlapping string parts, but the overall impression is of all concerned being oblivious to each other, and busy with their own lines of counterpoint. This is a slowly unfolding work and relentless in its intensity. It is suffused with Beethoven, and not least because of the literal quote in the last few minutes from the Funeral March of his ‘Eroica’ Symphony. More than ever before I heard that another obvious influence was Wagner, and I was reminded – not for the last time in this concert – of the Prelude to Parsifal Act III.

The London Symphony Orchestra’s musicians were in fine form and their playing was focussed and controlled through to – and beyond – an astonishing fortissimo that Strauss puts in around halfway. Praise to all the players, and especially to the leader Roman Simovic’s delicate solos. Treating the work like chamber music means all strove not just for clarity, but also to give it all a coherent structure. There seemed to be a controlled passion that made it intensely serene. Yet it was strangely optimistic for the most part, and only spasmodically moving. But why, oh why, was Rattle conducting this piece? I am absolutely confident that the 23 players were capable of the same performance without all his somewhat distracting ’armography’; all pointing index fingers and cajoling hands.

The composer wrote the piece during the final months of WWII, in which his involvement was dubious …to say the least. Strauss was 80 and saw his beloved Germany lying in ruins. Specifically, it was the destruction of the opera houses in Weimar, Dresden and Vienna that affected him most. When I hear Metamorphosen I am reminded of the words of musicologist Rose Rosengard Subotnik: ‘Recalling how it was the bombing of an opera house (in the Third Reich) rather than the murder of fellow human beings that drew this expression of grief from Strauss, I remain troubled [by the piece].’ Part of me can only agree!

From 1908, with his conducting commitments completed, Mahler went to his summer retreat in the southern Tyrolean village of Toblach (now Dobbiaco), where – and for the last three years of his life – he could start composing again. (Readers may be interested to know his composing hut is still there, but now within a small childrens’ zoo surrounded by pigs, goats and chickens!) A friend had given Mahler a volume by Hans Bethge entitled Die chinesische Flöte (‘The Chinese Flute’), a volume containing German translations of a collection of some 80 Chinese poems. The poems appealed to Mahler and using seven of them, he turned them into the six songs of Das Lied von der Erde. It is the sixth song (‘Der Abschied’) that includes two poems, and Mahler also significantly makes his own alterations to the text.

The latter is significant as to the biographical nature of Das Lied von der Erde. Stephen Johnson’s programme note tells us how Mahler wrote to Bruno Walter: ‘I have never been able to compose only at my desk – I need outside space for my inner exercises … After a gentle little walk my pulse beats so fast and I feel so oppressed that I don’t even achieve the desired effect of forgetting my body … This is the greatest calamity I have ever known!’ At this point in Mahler’s life he had been diagnosed with the heart condition that would kill him, and he knew the time left to him would be short. Towards the end of ‘Der Abschied’ (The Farewell) we hear (as translated by Mike George): ‘Where am I going? I shall go wandering in the mountains, I seek peace for my lonely heart! I will wander back to my homeland, to my resting place. I shall never roam so far afield. My heart is calmly awaiting its hour!’

Also, if we consider Mahler’s superstition about the finality of ninth symphonies, with one exception – ‘Der Einsame in Herbst’ (The Lonely One in Autumn) – he avoids the use of D minor which was the key of both Beethoven and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphonies, their last. (Later of course, Mahler’s own Ninth Symphony will also be in D minor!) That second song is most clearly about the fear of death, and so the use of D minor for it is undoubtedly not coincidental. The fifth one – another depressing song ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ (The Drunkard in Spring) – ends significantly in F major, the relative major of D minor.

The tenor has a thankless task and I am not certain the ‘perfect’ voice exists that can do justice to all the challenges Mahler sets it. Simon O’Neill sang with commendably robust musicality, and there is rarely an ugly sound. He showed considerable vocal heft with testosterone-fuelled top notes, against an orchestra often let off the leash by Rattle (unlike the control of their volume he demanded when Christian Gerhaher was singing). O’Neill gave an interesting dramatic twist to his songs; from subtly varying his expression in the ‘Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod’ repetitions of his first song, to employing an elegant head voice for ‘Der Vogel singt und lacht!’ in ‘Der Trunkene’.

After some later experimentation, Bruno Walter – who conducted the posthumous premiere of Das Lied in 1911 – decided that a tenor and baritone did not work as well as tenor and (mezzo or) contralto. I must agree with him: certainly with the ill-matched pairing for this concert. O’Neill had a big voice and sang out loudly to the balcony, whilst Gerhaher’s had a much smaller voice and sang modestly with his head down in his score. I wonder just how far it travelled in the Barbican Hall; though it will not have mattered to those listening to the BBC Radio 3 live broadcast. I am certain Gerhaher has many admirers, and at times what I was hearing from him sounded more like Schubert than Mahler. Though Gerhaher produced some wonderfully pure tones, his was such an analytical approach to every word – almost every syllable – he sang that he bleached many phrases of their meaning. After his last whispered ‘Ewig’ I was left unconvinced that Gerhaher was psychologically ‘at one’ with the meaning of the texts.

Both singers were generally well supported by Simon Rattle and the LSO. I have rarely been more struck by Mahler’s use of pentatonic scales – in imitation of ‘Chinese’ music – than I was at this performance; more in the faster songs, such as ‘Von der Jugend’ (Youth), than in the slower ones. Throughout, it was as if I was listening to Das Lied for the very first time. So much detail did I hear in the songs about the fragile splendours of life – youth, beauty, drunkenness, melancholy, fate, approach of death – that orchestrally the performance felt like a genuine revelation. Again, there were reminiscences of Wagner’s Parsifal, particularly in the yearning, melancholic and poignant interludes of ‘Der Abschied’. You will have gathered how the LSO played very well indeed, and there were important contributions from Olivier Stankiewicz’s oboe, Roman Simovic’s violin, as well as, cor anglais, clarinet and solo cello.

If you are not there for the repeat of this concert on 17th December, then listen to it on BBC iPlayer and make up your own mind about the performance.

Jim Pritchard

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  1. George P. says:

    “After his last whispered ‘Ewig’ I was left unconvinced that Gerhaher was psychologically ‘at one’ with the meaning of the texts.”

    This betrays a lack of knowledge and perhaps insufficient sensitivity. (And also the non-German speaker.) There’s no singer more “at one” with the meaning of texts than Gerhaher, who wouldn’t sing a work, unless he had wrapped his head around the text, first.

    • Jim Pritchard says:

      Thank you for your comment to S&H. As co-founder of the modern UK Mahler Society I am still happy to admit to a ‘lack of knowledge’ and who knows everything? Despite having a Viennese mother I will also admit to being a non-fluent German speaker. I do however ‘know’ what I should be hearing … and that was not it! But we can agree to disagree … you liked Gerhaher, but I did not. Jim

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