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Haydn, Mahler, Schoenberg: Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano) Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)Queen Elizabeth Hall, 09.12. 2006 (AR)


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.

As 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, Magnus 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.

This 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.

Mezzo-soprano 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. Rheinlegendchen 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!

In the overtly kitsch Lob 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 in Wo 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 the 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 rapturous applause.

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 Erwartung?


Verklärte Nacht (1899) was inspired by the poem Woman and the World (1896) by 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  Verklärte Nacht (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.


Alex Russell


Further listening:


Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Anne Sophie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), 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.



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