This concert, and its pair on Thursday night, must be amongst the most
advertised and hyped of the season; on taking one’s seat at, or exiting
from virtually every event since early September, one has been presented
with a glossy leaflet about it, and, even more revealingly, on this
evening, the seats bore flyers offering two tickets for the price of
one to Thursday’s concert; one would have thought that the hall might
have been full - for Terfel or Fleming, queues at the box office, strictly
only one Press ticket allocation – but for Quasthoff and Nagano, despite
all the extensive hype and plenty of papering, there were still rows
of empty seats. Why? Is Mahler so unpopular? Is Bruckner so difficult?
I recall seeing some empty seats for a Chailly/Goerne all – Mahler evening
at the RFH a year or so ago, but put that down to stiff competition
from Andreas Scholl at the next-door QEH. It simply astonished me that
the Barbican did not have standing room only for a singer who I would
cross a desert to hear, and a fine orchestra under a conductor with
such natural command.
It was inevitable that there would some kind of tribute to the Queen
Mother on the day of her funeral, and it was a glorious one; after a
minute’s silence, Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ was
performed with utterly moving grace, and it was extremely unfortunate
that someone chose to burst into applause just as Quasthoff had sung
his final phrase, but well before the exquisite music had concluded.
What was even worse, and unforgivable, was that several latecomers were
admitted after this; Nagano, with his back to the audience, was unaware,
and did not glance round to see what was all too obvious to Quasthoff
– as the music began, three gaudily – dressed women took their seats
in the middle of the front stalls, only just seating themselves fussily
as the words ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’ were sung. Disgraceful;
Quasthoff took it inscrutably but it cannot have helped his concentration,
and it really is about time the hall did something about this practice,
in which it is by far the worst London offender.
‘Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen’ is the perfect vehicle for Quasthoff’s
voice, and he sang it with his characteristic combination of pathos,
aristocratic ease of delivery, dramatic urgency and sensitivity to words.
The top of his voice has a really tenorial ring, and his low notes are
those of a true bass; he sings these words as though they are not in
fact rather inept effusions by the composer but amongst the greatest
examples of German lyric poetry, and it is also immensely to his credit
that he makes very little of the more goofy moments such as ‘Zink zink!
Schön und flink.’ Although he did not take the lines ‘Auf der Strasse
steht ein Lindenbaum / da hab ich zum erstenmal im Schlaf geruht!’ without
a breath in the middle, a feat with which Fischer-Dieskau once made
my jaw drop in astonishment, his brief intake of air after ‘Lindenbaum’
was so tiny as to be almost imperceptible, and his control and communicativeness
throughout were exemplary. The orchestra played beautifully for him,
guided by Nagano’s exceptionally sensitive shaping of the music.
Quasthoff was at his finest at moments of sadness, despair and anguish
such as ‘Nein!Nein! Das ich mein, mir nimmer blühen kann!’ and
of course the melancholy close of ‘Alles! Alles! Lieb und Leid! /Und
Welt und Traum’ where his tone had such aching pathos that it seemed
to send the audience into a trance; this tone, at once forcefully masculine
and sweetly tremulous, is what individualizes his singing to such a
marked degree, and one can only imagine how moving his ‘Kindertötenlieder’
on Thursday is likely to prove. I suggest bringing a strong hanky.
The orchestra and conductor really showed what they could do in the
second half, which consisted of Bruckner’s 3rd in the rarely
performed original version of 1873, and I have never before heard Bruckner
played with such convincing power and spirit, so much so that I was
almost persuaded that this symphony is not merely a collection of lyrical
moments interspersed with a few spot- the – Wagner quotation passages.
As the programme reminded us, this original version preceded Bruckner’s
torments of self – doubt and the advice of frequently misguided well
–wishers, and it unfolded here with real grandeur.
Bruckner’s appeal, as far as I and I am sure many others are concerned,
is his combination of Schubertian lyricism and Wagnerian power, and
Nagano’s reading of the work seemed calculated to play to that. The
eloquently lyrical passages, such as the ‘song group’ of the first movement
and the first theme of the Adagio, were played with exceptional clarity
and sensitivity, and all those so – recognizable Wagnerian moments where
the violins and brass seem just about to break into such pieces as the
Pilgrims Chorus from ‘Tannhauser,’ received intense, highly dramatic
readings. I have never seen bassists work as hard as these ones did
in the third movement and the Finale; indeed every section of the orchestra
seemed to be playing as though their lives depended upon it. Nagano
held it all together with measured, eloquent skill, even managing to
convey that most difficult of contrasts in the last movement, which
the composer had suggested represented the juxtaposition of the joys
and sorrows of life.
The same orchestra, conductor and soloist will perform ‘Kindertötenlieder’
and Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major on Thursday, and it would be fitting
if there were no empty seats in the house; there are certainly unlikely
to be very many dry eyes.