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Seen and Heard Prom Review

PROM 33: Berg, Three Pieces for Orchestra; Mahler, Das klagende Lied, Gwynneth Ann Jeffers (soprano), Michelle de Young (mezzo-soprano),  Johan Botha (tenor) Mark Delavan (baritone), The Boys of Kings College Choir, Cambridge, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles  (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, 7 August 2005 (AO)


Pierre Boulez' recording of the Berg orchestral pieces is something of a benchmark.  Incisive and idiomatic, it brings out the nascent modernism in Berg's early work.  Nonetheless, the work is also Berg's homage to Gustav Mahler, and a performance highlighting its late Romantic, Mahlerian aspects is just as welcome.  Unfortunately, this performance didn't seem to come together with any recognisable coherence.  In an ambitious piece like this, form matters.  The wave like shapes that underpin the Präludium were ill defined.  A fellow Prommer remarked that the Reigen sounded “angry” - a perceptive insight indeed into a movement normally characterized by its evocation of Ländler, albeit seen through the prism of Mahler's Seventh.    Perhaps orchestra and conductor were annoyed that they weren't getting what they aimed at.  It dragged, and there were dissonances in places I hadn't noticed before.  More successful was the large third movement, the Marsch.  Written in the depressing weeks after the outbreak of war in 1914, it has ambitious aims, and Berg littered the score with notation.  Nonetheless, it is rousing material, with two more hammerblows than in Mahler's Sixth, often seen as its model.  The trumpets, horns and trombones let rip expressively.  There were even hints of the march music in Wozzeck.   Few audiences can resist crashing percussion and brass, and the arena roared approval.  The audience elsewhere in the Hall was sparse, surprisingly, since this was not a difficult programme.

Runnicles tends to be far more in tune with the late Romantics, so I had high hopes for Mahler's Das klagende Lied.  I wasn't disappointed.  You'd hardly have believed it was the same conductor and orchestra.  From the first bars, there was noticeable panache and sense of animation pushing the music forward.  On paper, the piece doesn't look promising – a naïve pseudo legend about a man killing his brother over a flower and the dead man's bones becoming a haunted flute.  Mahler started it when he was seventeen – how teenagers have changed!   Nonetheless, the nineteenth century imagination was intrigued by fairy tale mystery, gothic or otherwise.  Mahler was deeply immersed in German music theatre and Singspiele and was under the spell of the greatest composer of that tradition, Carl Maria von Weber. Runnicles led his players with commitment and total understanding of the idiom.  Where the Berg had been flabby, the Mahler was taut with vivid energy.  This gave the music trajectory, where the longuers of the score might hold things back.  Details were clearly highlighted, such as the gorgeous writing for harp, and the lone trombone in Der Spielmann.  Runnicles played up the Romantic antecedents for all they were worth – there were echoes after echo of Der Freischütz, layer after layer of hunting horns, distant and just on the horizon.  Indeed, I was struck by the clear references to Das Rheingold – another drama about theft and retribution. For Mahler, Wagner was a revolution that changed music irrevocably.  In Runnicles realization, we can feel the excitement young Mahler would have felt when he discovered Wagner.

A wise old Mahler specialist told me years ago that I would never really appreciate Das klagende Lied until I had learned the whole of Mahler intimately.  Mahler was never one to forget a good musical idea.  He developed and adapted continuously and was remarkably consistent throughout his career.  I kept hearing almost subliminal reminders of Wunderhorn related material, odd phrases from various songs and early symphonies.  It made for a very intense experience as the references set off ideas back and forth, and about the nature of Mahler's inner musical world. It made me appreciate just how seminal voice was to his writing, even though the actual vocal writing here is too abbreviated and choppy to be really successful.  Mahler is already experimenting with walls of choral sound balanced by huge crescendi of instrumental density.  The idea that Mahler could ever really have written “opera” as such becomes a non-starter.  Even in this early work, there are no “roles” as such.  In Das klagende Lied Mahler is finding his niche as a composer of a new synthesis of music and song.  It was important that this Prom included the third movement, the Hochzeitsstück, because it did balance the other two parts, and it gave more evidence of Mahler's adventures in voice writing.

The experience was helped immeasurably by the clarity of performance.  The orchestra was completely on form, bar a few minor passages, such as when Runnicles kept the trombones on too long, and they wobbled. The lead violinist, Daniel Rowland, played a particularly luscious solo.   Michelle de Young was amazing, both to listen to and to look at.  Statuesque and truly “Gar lieblich ohne Massen”, her blonde curls flowing like a medieval vision of beauty personified.  Dressed in splendid pale gold, she added a visual element to the drama which again brought out its unique status as music theatre that is not theatre per se.   Her voice was equally resplendent, warm and mellow, yet capable of evoking mystery.  She is well experienced as a Mahler specialist, and has performed this part frequently. Gwynneth Ann Jeffers is usually also a wonderful, compelling presence on stage, and this evening her voice had a glorious fresh vigour.  Alas, it was not her fault that even in his youth, Mahler had little interest in high female voice and her part did not give her room to bloom as she should have.  Johan Botha, the tenor, had much more to sing and did so very well indeed, sustaining the long lines above the orchestra seemingly without effort, and Mark Delavan made his Proms debut as baritone.  The ensemble singing was particularly dynamic – not duets, note, where singers sing “to” each other, but more a peculiarly Mahlerian mini chorus.

As for the large chorus, they were crucial to the structure of the whole piece, even though the demands on their capacity are not overwhelming.  It must be sheer fun to sing this work, knowing the rewards are, for a change, greater than the demands.  Nonetheless, the responsibility placed on the Boys of King's College Choir, Cambridge was formidable.  They are well experienced, but they are only very young indeed.  The boy alto and the boy soprano, Samuel Landman and Edward Philips, showed precocious poise.  The idea of getting a high voiced boy to sing the words of the haunted flute was inspired. 


Anne Ozorio


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