Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano) Philharmonia Orchestra,
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)Queen Elizabeth Hall, 09.12.
From the 2008/09 season, Esa-Pekka Salonen will assume
the roles of Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor
of the Philharmonia Orchestra. After von Dohnanyi’s
somewhat disappointing tenure, full of dull concerts and
conservative programming, I welcome this news, especially
on the strength of tonight’s concert.
Artistic Advisor to the Philharmonia Orchestra (and a
recognised composer in his own right) I sincerely hope
that Salonen will conduct important composers like Allan
Pettersson, Robert Simpson, Elliott Carter,
Lindberg, Kalevi Aho, and Per Norgard to name just a few,
and to declare a merciful moratorium on the over- played
symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler –
the usual suspects - for at least five years. The dwindling
concert audience attendances in London are largely due
to the fact that the Philharmonia, the LPO and the LSO
all play virtually identical ‘popular’ programmes again
and again ad nauseam.
imaginatively planned and rather short concert opened
with Joseph Haydn’s rarely performed Symphony No.6
in D, Le matin which was given a brisk, elegant
and small scale, suave reading with both conductor and
orchestra clearly relishing every moment.
Anne Sofie von Otter is arguably the
finest Mahler mezzo singing today as her paradigm performance
of Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic
Horn) proved perfectly. Often this song cycle can
sound embarrassingly sentimental and kitsch, with many
singers going over the top with their folksy characterisations.
and Verlor'ne Muh were sung with a naïve, child-like
purity and a sense of wonderment, refreshingly cleansed
of the usual schmaltz, and she actually made us believe
in what was being sung!
des hohen Verstandes
tasteful von Otter characterised the donkey, cuckoo and
nightingale sounds without going too far (as Christa Ludwig
used to do under James Levine at Salzburg), whilst the
Philharmonia woodwind likewise played with stylish and
pointed characterisations. Her breath control
die schönen Trompeten
was outstanding and seamless and she floated her phrases
with eloquent ease. In Das irdische Leben she sang
with a wonderful range of shifting moods and colour and
vocal expression yet without sounding sickly and sentimental
as is often heard here. In
opening passages of the final song Urlicht, the
brass played with a wonderful warm resonance only to be
sabotaged by some very raucous coughing. Von Otter’s
Urlicht was simply serene and sublime, even out-shining
Jessye Norman in purity of spirit and tonal control; this
is by far the finest I have ever heard it sung. This was
world class Mahler singing and Von Otter rightly received
The second half just consisted of Arnold Schoenberg’s
Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night) - a
work for string orchestra around 27 minutes long: surely
the concert planners could have also included either Mahler's
Kindertotenlieder or Schoenberg’s soprano monodrama
(1899) was inspired by the poem Woman and the World
the symbolist poet Richard Dehmel, in which a woman confesses
to her lover that she is due to have another man’s child.
He responds that the power of their love means that the
child will be born his, and all is settled. Yet this is
not programme music and in the words of the composer:
“does not describe a particular action or drama, but
is limited to depicting Nature and expressing human feelings.”
Thus the music suggests certain sensations such as
the shudder, the shiver, the shining, the serene, the
sad and much more of a mood poem rather than a tone poem
with the chromatic tonal influences of Mahler and Wagner's
Tristan and Isolde shining through. (Schoenberg
and Mahler were actually introduced at a rehearsal of
Verklärte Nacht in 1903).
The Philharmonia Orchestra played the
full-string version of
(1917) with great
expressivity and sensitivity throughout, with Esa-Pekka Salonen having total
control of the wide ranging dynamics and arching structure of the score.
Sadly what was lacking were the essential
warmth and grainy weight required of the cellos and double-basses (which has
been a basic problem with the Philharmonia since Otto Klemperer retired from
orchestra in 1972). In the climactic central section the double-basses should
play mezzo-forte with a rapid throbbing sensation sending shivers through the
audience but here simply lacked bite and weight.Salonen urgently needs to
retrain the cellos and double-basses to play with much more weight and with a
wider range of tone and colour: they simply lack presence today.
This concert was a promising foretaste of
what we can expect when Salonen takes over the reins and reigns supreme - and
hopefully free from warhorses.
Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Anne Sophie von
Thomas Quasthoff (baritone),
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Claudio Abbado (conductor): Deutsche Grammophon
DGG: 289 459.
Schoneberg: Transfigured Night: New York
Philharmonic Orchestra, Pierre Boulez (conductor); Schoneberg: Pelléas and
Mélisande: Orchestre de Paris, Daniel Barenboim (conductor): Sony: Essential
Classics: SBK 63035.