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S & H Concert Review

Adès, And all shall be well: Mahler, songs from Des Knaben Wünderhorn: Shostakovich, Symphony no. 8 in C minor. London Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Ingo Metzmacher; Matthias Goerne (baritone) Royal Festival Hall, January 24th 2004 (ME)


Ingo Metzmacher has made a speciality of imaginative and thought-provoking programming, and this superb concert provided an ideal example of that: it could be called the ‘anti-military’ presentation of music with a martial theme, and if the aim was to reflect upon the sadness of war rather than its supposed glory, then the evening was a triumphant success. Adès’ short piece was his earliest one for full orchestra, and was first heard as the introductory piece to a performance of Britten’s War Requiem, a fitting juxtaposition given the later work’s mood of quiet remembrance and acceptance. The sound world presented here is built up of contrasts between the dulcet patterns created by antique cymbals and triangles and the more robust development of the initial sketches provided by the full orchestra, and the LPO under Metzmacher’s highly spirited direction managed to make it seem like a chamber work despite the huge forces involved.

Mahler’s set of ‘military nocturnes’ and folk song settings lend themselves to varying methods of presentation, with the whole set sung by two or three singers, or as here, with a strongly connected group of seven, all sung by Matthias Goerne who made it abundantly clear that this music is about the desperate sadness of war and the loneliness and isolation of its more vulnerable participants rather than any glorification of battle. Goerne clearly loves this music with a passion, and he characteristically takes risks with it – this is daring, thought-provoking singing, not without its white knuckle moments for both performers and audience, but that’s what happens when you take risks rather than settling for the more usual combination of blandness and heartiness. ‘Wo die schönen trompeten blasen’ immediately revealed the exceptional intimacy of accord between conductor and singer: taken unusually slowly and quietly, Metzmacher’s spacious pacing allowed Goerne to achieve the most astonishingly quiet pianissimi whilst still being audible, and to caress phrases such as ‘Bei meinem Herzallerlieble’ which was given in a single arc of the most golden tone. This is an elegiac, poetic interpretation of the music, without swagger but full of foreboding.

Goerne is however able to assume a vocal swagger when required, as in ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’ where he demonstrated his forte and his technical assurance – a wonderfully evenly controlled diminuendo at ‘Rund!’ and the most perfect progression of tone at that final ‘Verlorne Feldwacht / Sang es um Mitternacht…Feldwacht!’ The two ‘lighter’ songs, ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’ and ‘Des Antonius von padua Fischpredigt’ were effectively placed between the sentry’s song and a wonderfully selfless performance of the challenging ‘Urlicht:’ without any undue histrionics, without any egotistical withdrawing into the self, Goerne simply states the lot of Mankind, and it is his directness in such music which makes his singing so affirmative even when the burden of the song is a bleak one: ‘…das ewig selig Leben!’ can seldom have been so glowingly suggested.

Goerne’s breath control and variety of vocal colour in the ‘Tralalei’ sections of ‘Revelge’ were amazing, but so eager was he to sing ‘Ich muss wohl meine Trommel ruhren’ that he tried to come in with it too early, not once, but twice, and had to be restrained by Metzmacher’s hand firmly placed on his elbow… no harm done, they got it all back without damaging the musical line – that’s just what happens when you take risks in a live performance. ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’ was a fitting conclusion, evoking all the drummer-boy’s sense of foreboding, his attempts at bravado and his forlorn stoicism: Goerne managed to suggest the boy singing to console himself in the dark, and it is precisely this sense of being temporarily let into a private world which characterizes his uniquely perceptive singing.

I’ve spent much longer than I know all the other critics will on the Mahler, simply because this repertoire is my speciality, and I know that others will provide a full assessment of the Shostakovich, but this is not to disparage the marvellous performance of the C minor 8th. No disputes here about the character of the music: Metzmacher had made up his mind that the composer was speaking from the heart rather than just for the official record when he opined that the work was ‘optimistic, life-affirming’ and that its overall concept can be summed up as ‘life is beautiful.’ Of course, this fitted perfectly with the tenor of the evening: Metzmacher led a performance which, although not by any means weak in terms of grandeur or sense of urgency, was characterized by its stress on the more lyrical, personal aspects of the work, and, dare one say it, by its Mahlerian sense of elegy.

The wonderful Cor Anglais solo which forms the work’s most individual moment was played with limpid beauty by Sue Bohling, not as a triumphal announcement of the ‘hero’ but as an almost hesitant expression of his presence. The same kind of quiet, intense dignity was especially evident in the final movement: you really did get a sense that this was ‘bright, joyful music of pastoral quality’ from those silvery trumpets and softly pulsating double-basses. One would seek in vain for any raw, visceral quality in this interpretation, but this was as valid a concept as any other I have heard, and certainly in accord with the composer’s declared intentions. This was my first experience of this conductor, who with a pleasing appropriateness has since 1997 distinguished himself as General Music Director of Hamburg, the city where Mahler was once Chief Conductor, and who will take up the prime post of Chief Conductor at the Netherlands Opera in 2005: he’s clearly a real individual, with a highly impressive technique and obvious rapport with the players – he wields a pretty firm singer-grabbing arm, too.


Melanie Eskenazi




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