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PROM 44: Berg and Mahler, Christine Schäfer (soprano); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Danielle Gatti, Royal Albert Hall, 17 August, 2005 (CC)



Christine Schäfer's portrayal of Lulu at Glyndebourne has even now gone down in the history books – and having been present at the Proms performance in 1996, I can see (and hear) why. Nice to have her back in the Bergian 'advert' for his opera, the Lulu Suite.


It has to be said the hall filled up considerably after the interval for the Mahler. Is Berg really still so frightening for Londoners? It was also good to hear the RPO on such good form – the challenge clearly raised their game. The opening, a silken web of strings, led to an account in which Gatti's ear for textural delineation was demonstrated fully. A positively radiant arrival point crowned a 'Rondo: Andante and Hymn' that was highly perfumed without losing any clarity at all.


The post-Romantic intensity of the Ostinato movement moved us closer to the world of Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande, but it was  Schäfer who stole the show in Lulu's Song. Her sound is positively lovely, and it loses nothing of its allure in the higher register. Every word emerged with crystal clarity; the melismas of the second verse were close to perfection. The lurid colours of the Variations separated this from the Suite's finale, an Adagio crowned by the Countess Geschwitz' erotically tinged farewell to Lulu. The orchestra prepared the way expertly, emphasizing the aching intervals, the orchestral 'scream' perfectly together. It was left to Schäfer to give radiant voice to grief. Wonderful.


Is it possible there was more rehearsal time allotted to the Berg than to the Mahler? There were certainly some rough corners. Cellos attempted to be glowing, yet fell short; there was a false violin entry in the slow movement. The orchestra looked small, and indeed climaxes (even the big ones in the third movement) felt scaled-down. This was a Fourth that tried to be everybody's friend and became nobody's. There is a brightness to much of the score that seemed lower wattage than normal here.


The opening of the finale was marred by some foul tuning towards the end of the slow movement. The orchestral imitations (of the oxen, for example) were played down. All this was in contrast to Schäfer's miraculous melding of line, diction and emotion. Dressed in what looked like tails as opposed to the dresses (plural) of the first half, the thought crossed my mind she was trying for the choirboy look. Certainly her description of the Heavenly environs was a marvel, crowned by her conspiratorial whisper (superbly controlled) as she told of Saint Cecilia and her court musicians.


Colin Clarke

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