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Chabrier, Mahler, Beethoven: (Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo), Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Philippe Jordan (conductior), Queen Elizabeth Hall 7.01.2006 (JPr)

Perhaps concert administrators are beginning to think more and plan coherent, thought-through musical programmes for the twenty-first century? The Chamber Orchestra of Europe are celebrating their 25th anniversary season and in some early publicity for their concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (7 January), it stated that ‘In an age dominated by aggressive, machine-made sounds, it’s difficult to imagine the part played by nature in shaping the sound-world of the past’. (Whoever wrote this had nothing to do with the printed programme that was the usual cut-and paste job of written notes.) The comment was not so difficult for those in the know I would think but worth saying nevertheless and could generate at least 100 concerts of musical diversions from nature-inspired composers down the ages. Unfortunately there is rarely any such thread occurring in the items of a symphony concert and this is something I have written about from time to time and will not repeat the arguments again here.

Chabrier’s Suite pastorale, Mahler Lieder and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (No.6 in F major) were almost the perfect mix with only Mahler’s ‘I have a burning knife’ seeming out of place despite ‘yellow fields’ and hair ‘blowing in the wind’.

In fact the inspiration for Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of Travelling Journeyman’ – usually ‘Wayfarer’) was probably three-fold. Research has shown that as a child Mahler’s favourite song was a Czech one At se pinkl Házi (‘Let the knapsack rock’) the words of which probably never left him as it begins ‘A wanderer/ a wayfarer/ went from Hungary to Moravia’ and goes on to have him dancing in an inn. Secondly by 1884 (at the age of 24) Mahler was himself that ‘wayfarer’ as a ‘journeyman’ conductor whose itinerant progress had led him to a post at Kassel at that time where the third event occurred in an ultimately doomed relationship with a singer, Johanna Emma Richter. Six songs Mahler originally wrote for Johanna became the cycle of four we now know. They were not orchestrated for at least a further eight years. Without a wealthy patron like Wagner had, life went on for Mahler and he became even more of a ‘summer composer’ because it was a case of ‘I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go!’ His symphonies became the operas he would never write and his songs were the arias. Never is this more obvious than in his youthful Wayfarer cycle.

These Lieder are probably more the territory for a baritone than a mezzo but Anne Sofie von Otter made a compelling case for a non-sexist approach here. The lyrics are Mahler’s own, though they are influenced by Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

The first is called Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (‘My sweetheart’s wedding day’), and the Wayfarer expresses his grief at losing his love to another. ‘He’ remarks on the beauty of the world, but how that cannot keep him from being sad as he goes to sleep. The second, Ging heut' Morgen übers Feld (‘I went across the fields this morning’), is the happiest one. It is a song of joy and wonder at the beauty of nature, in simple things like the song of birds and dew on the grass. After ‘Isn’t it a lovely world?’ the Wayfarer is reminded at the end that despite this beauty, his happiness will never bloom for him again. In that full of despair third one, Ich hab' ein glühend Messer (‘I have a burning knife’), the Wayfarer likens his agony of a lost love to having the blade pierce his heart. He obsesses to the point where everything reminds him of his lost love. The fourth song definitely brings some resolution with the music (also reused in Mahler’s First Symphony like the second song) lyrical, gentle, and subdued, often reminiscent of a chorale in its harmonies. Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (‘The two blue eyes of my sweetheart’) deals with how the thought of those eyes has caused him so much sorrow that he cannot stand it anymore. He describes sleeping (dying?) under a linden tree and allowing the blossoms to fall on him, wishing everything was good again, ‘Everything! Love and pain, and world, and dreams!’

It is important to explain these songs because it is difficult to put into words how wonderfully the overall desolation was expressed in the impeccable voice of Anne Sofie von Otter who used her dramatic gifts and extraordinary vocal range to achingly heart-wrenching effect, never more so than in the dramatic change of mood at that poignant close to Ging heut' Morgen übers Feld where Mahler grasps despair from the jaws of pure unadulterated joy in a way only he can. Of course, this would be nothing without the bittersweet musical accompaniment and everything is orchestrated so delicately in the main but is driven and intense at times particularly in the third, almost Verdian, song which nearly justifies my ‘aria’ idea. The soloist was most ably supported by her young conductor, Philippe Jordan (son of Armin) who despite a certain robotic stiffness that makes him uncomfortable to watch was commanding, alert and extremely musical, not only during the Lieder but throughout the whole evening. He was ably supported by his fifty or so musicians who filled the hall with a refined sound throughout the concert.

I have dwelt at length on what was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening but do not wish to dismiss the other excellent music-making. The French composer Emmanuel Chabrier is described as a countryman at heart and someone who worked for too long in the French equivalent of the Home Office before becoming a full-time composer. Four of his own Dix Pièces pittoresques for the piano he arranged as his Suite pastorale (Idyll, Village Dance, Undergrowth, and concluding Scherzo-Waltz) producing a melodic masterpiece with vivid orchestral colour and musical jocularity that is allied to a tenderness and perfection which almost alludes to Bach at times. It was an ideal companion piece to Beethoven’s Symphony No.6 (Pastoral) that concluded the evening.

In the Pastoral Beethoven set himself the task of blending rustic merry-making, country dances, the sounds of nature, storms etc. into a symphony. There is a sort of rural concert in the third movement and a peasant dance interrupted by a storm (Fourth movement), the storm subsides and out come the country folk to seemingly bask in a rainbow when summoned by yodeling calls on the horn (the horn player unfortunately having an off night!) and it all ends in the Shepherds’ song of thanksgiving. Beethoven believed it was all ‘more an expression of feeling than painting’ but there is plenty of descriptive music with bleating sheep, bird calls, a flute nightingale, oboe thrush and clarinet cuckoo all easy very to hear whilst probably even more audible are the bustling sounds of nature depicted by repeated motifs.

With Chabrier and Beethoven it was not exact ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ and it was an idealized version of country life typical of townies. It took Mahler to burst the bubble of this picturesque scene with some raw human emotion. Nevertheless with the artistry of Anne Sofie von Otter, the refined conducting of Philippe Jordan and deft musicianship of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe we have an early contender for concert of 2006.

© Jim Pritchard


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