Germany R. Strauss and Mahler: Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Philharmonie, Cologne, 3.6.2022. (MB)
Strauss – Metamorphosen
Mahler (arr. Glen Cortese) – Das Lied von der Erde
No sooner than gaining Simon Rattle, London is about to lose him again, one of many ‘Brexit dividends’ that continue to lighten our lives. As is so often the case, Britain’s loss is Germany’s gain, Rattle exchanging the London Symphony Orchestra for Munich’s Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. In the meantime, Cologne’s Philharmonie is offering a ‘Portrait Sir Simon Rattle’, involving both the LSO and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Here, I heard Rattle conduct the latter in Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen and Glen Cortese’s reduction of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde for smaller orchestra.
The COE’s sound for the Strauss, cultivated and variegated, spoke very much of a collection of soloists come together in collaboration with a conductor, influencing one another. Rattle gave a detailed, yet unfussy account, taking time where necessary, letting the music breathe, but also pushing on later in tandem with Strauss’s generative motivic writing. I was put in mind of a comment Rattle made when recording Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder of this being the largest of string quartets. And Metamorphosen here sounded, more in the flexible line of Furtwängler than, say, Karajan or Klemperer, as if a companion piece to Verklärte Nacht, albeit with its sinking back into darkness perhaps having something in common with Strauss’s own Alpine Symphony (if you can imagine a chamber version of that). That was not final, of course, for spirits rose proudly once more, Rattle doing justice to the emotional and formal complexities of the work. Whilst sometimes I missed the stronger bass and thus harmonic drive one would hear from the conductors cited above, this had much to recommend it, not as a final word, but an important current one. For if this is not a piece that deals in ambiguities, what is?
Das Lied von der Erde made for an interesting comparison with a performance (for full orchestra) I heard last month from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Edward Gardner, with the same soloists, Magdalena Kožená and Andrew Staples. Rattle conducted from memory, as he had Metamorphosen. Whereas much of his recent Mahler has seemed wilful to me, I had the impression the challenge of this new version gave him enough of a stimulus to curb more arbitrary flights of fancy (though some will have disagreed, particularly in the fifth and sixth movements). At any rate, neither Cortese’s work nor Rattle’s response offered little that is radical. I had been expecting something akin to an Erwin Stein Mahler Fourth, whereas here we had a large chamber orchestra (strings 10.8.6.4.3, mostly pairs of wind instruments, etc.) playing a slightly reduced score. Both singers seemed more greatly at ease, I thought, though whether that were a matter of score, conductor, or both I can hardly say. Staples in his numbers was readily able to sing on top of the orchestra rather than within, though there were a few cases, doubtless interpretative choices, of slight hectoring. The orchestra, though – and one felt this from the very start – retained its sense of being a group of soloists; that is the COE way (which so attracted Claudio Abbado, among others). Never did one quite hear the full, Mahlerian orchestral sound, whether in wind or bass, though that may in part have been Rattle’s preference. Instrumental solos, for instance Clara Andrada (flute) and Kai Frömbgen (oboe) were outstanding.
In ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’, the second movement, Kožená, confiding and intimate, though not without moments of grander scale, collaborated both with her instrumental partners and with Rattle to trace a sese of circular despair, of lack of progress, as the third stanza returned us to its opening material. There was as great an orchestral swell as we heard at the close of this movement, paving the way for detailed, chamber contrast in the third and fourth, Staples notably more lyrical than he had been in London. Rattle and Kožená conjured up a nightmarish central section in ‘Von der Schönheit,’ the former’s interventionism more pronounced in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’, its third stanza heard as if in a daze. But then, the text does say: ‘Mir ist als wie im Traum’.
‘Der Abschied’ lacked nothing in darkness as it opened. Rattle was again keener to mould, though not unduly. He arguably brought the music closer to Schoenberg than often one hears: individual lines threatened to go their own way, yet never quite did. Kožená’s singing was richly expressive and adaptive. Whereas Gardner had, until part way through this movement, seemed largely content to act as accompanist, Rattle’s more prominent ‘voice’ helped ensure a sense of turn around rather than flicking of a switch: ‘Die Schönheit dieses Abends au geniessen.’ The lengthy, at times Wagnerian, orchestral interlude conveyed a sense that, while turning back might be inevitable, it would not be done without a fight. There was some splendid dragging of orchestral feet here, leading to a chamber Totentanz. As its marionettes prepared the way for a desolate ‘Er stieg vom Pferd…,’ Kožená sounded – indeed, looked – changed forever. Her radiant final stanza, magical celesta and all, made the point near-definitively.