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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 40 : Mahler, Weber, Brahms (arr. Schoenberg) Mathias Goerne (baritone), Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, 13.7.2007 (AO)  


The Proms are a showcase for the various BBC orchestras, giving them instant, world-wide recognition: careers have been built on Proms appearances.  In Germany, the radio orchestra tradition is hallowed and venerable; radio orchestras were how millions first heard music en masse and some day perhaps, there’ll be a book about their history. This Prom was a chance to hear “how the Germans do it”. The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and their new conductor Paavo Järvi have been together only a year, but this showed how the partnership has stimulated both to new heights.

The style was immediately distinctive : fresh and vernal, yet rooted in the rich Austro-German Romantic soul.  Weber’s Overture to Oberon was a perfect choice for   such is the delicacy of Weber’s vision that even now, opera productions can’t often capture its magic. Fortunately, good musicians can.   This vivacious music needs lithe yet energetic playing to release its free spirited exuberance, which this orchestra delivered with brio.

In this concert, the Oberon Overture really was an “overture” to the world of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Beneath the charm of these texts lurks deeper meaning and  hese tales of folk wisdom use images of magic and mystery to express things we’d now associate with the unconscious. Although the book was well known before Mahler, few composers explored the poems' potential as thoroughly as he  did and understanding their inner world is a key to understanding his work as a whole.

Matthias Goerne is probably more associated with Mahler than any other practicing singer, though his  recordings don’t properly  reflect how much he has done.  Moreover, he’s deeply immersed in the composer’s work as a whole, not just the vocal aspects.  Many years ago, a friend was startled to find him sitting beside her at a concert of Mahler’s 10th Symphony.  He was listening with such intense concentration that he seemed oblivious of anything but the music.  Goerne grew up hothoused in the rigorous East German music teaching tradition, where the emphasis was on producing “musicians” as opposed to just “singers”.  It’s important that a singer understands a composer’s entire sound world, because it encourages a deeper awareness of how song works as music: it helps create interpretations of profound insight.

Several years ago, the South Bank marked Alfred Brendel’s 70th birthday with a spectacular festival, the highlight of which was a Goerne/Brendel recital.  Although Goerne had just sustained a major leg injury, it was too important a concert personally and professionally to cancel, so he sang  despite his pain.  At the end, it was extremely moving to see the elderly Brendel supporting the youthful Goerne, as they hobbled offstage together like two old troupers, arm in arm.  Some injuries have a tendency to recur, and Goerne was again limping badly, his face pale with strain in an unguarded moment when he finished.

Why have I gone on about injuries and musicality? Because it’s in stress situations like this that a performer’s true professionalism comes through.  Goerne had the sense – and the knowledge – of where to concentrate his resources most effectively.   So if he didn’t attack sufficiently on the word “Krieg” in the Der Schildwache Nachtlied, he stretched out the word “Rund !” bccause musically and dramatically, it’s a more critical point in the song.  Similarly, witty genre pieces like Lob des Hohen Verstandes can get their bite across clearly enough without the need for Lieder like refinement, which would especially be wasted in the barn-like acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall.  Instead he concentrated on the more difficult songs like Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, where skilled interpretation is essential. In this performance, Goerne’s hushed, yet alert approach emphasized the eerie stillness of the night in which a woman’s lover suddenly materializes in her room.  Is it a dream ? Is he a ghost ?  The lover, a soldier, tells her they’ll be together within a year, but it’s certainly not romantic.  Goerne let the legato soar expansively on the second to last line, as if illustrating the vast distance between the lovers, before the final, shocking punchline.  The soldier is already dead, “under the green turf” on a far away battlefield.

The high point of this short group of songs was the immortal Urlicht, one of the crucial transitions in Mahler’s 2nd Symphony.  The tessitura is pitched a little high for most male voices, but Goerne capitalizes on the dark, brooding quality of his voice to bring out depths that  female singer’s can’t attain, thus creating another way into the song.  The simple line, “O Röschen rot”, was filled with nuance – you feel the sensuous beauty of the rose, and yet are aware that it’s small and vulnerable. This fragility makes it all the more wondrous that the protagonist in the song  (for the rose symbolizes mankind), should have the strength to defy the Angel who tries to turn it away from its destiny. Goerne shapes the phrase “Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott” with utter conviction.  That’s why the soul is so strong, it gets its power from the most profound source of all.  Despite all odds, it will reach “das ewig selig Leben”. This was a good illustration of how a singer uses his musical intelligence to create something unique and full of insight.

Of course the Wunderhorn songs can be sung as folksy genre pieces. With Goerne however, they are also part of the wider context of Mahler’s work, part of the inner journey that Mahler takes as he develops his intense ideas.  That earnest East German training in “total musicianship”  which Goerne learned in his youth, has paid dividends.

More magical transformation was to come in Schoenberg’s transcription of Brahms’s Piano Quartet No 1. It’s not as surprising as it may seem, since Schoenberg admired Brahms greatly and studied his work in great detail. In the original, he intuited the kernel of Brahm’s more mature work, so his transcription seems to liberate the  symphonic elements from the quartet, so to speak.  The first movement is conventional enough, setting out basic ideas, but then the “symphony” gathers steam, finally exploding in a glorious riot that is the Rondo alla Zingarese.

Schoenberg brings in extra colours, writing vividly for percussion winds and brass. There are lovely figures for trombone, flute and clarinet, and xylophone.  The xylophone, for example, takes on the role of the piano, often leading the orchestra as the pianist would have. Since the sound is less dominant, this changes the dynamic, resulting in a lighter, brighter palette, revealing the themes more clearly, and thus their development. The playing was so fresh and energetic, it felt almost like Weber.  This is Schoenberg having fun, wittily mixing Brahms with new elements, while remaining faithful to the essential Romantic tradition. There’s Mahler in the mix too, in the mock grotesque trombone glissandi. Schoenberg knew what he was doing, and this is exhilarating stuff.  But he knew his Brahms enough that the piece remains faithful to the sound world of 19th century Vienna, where czardas jostled with the waltz, and gypsy music was enjoyed by all.  Järvi and his orchestra know their Brahms, too, continuing the lively mood with an unannounced encore, Brahm’s own Hungarian Dance No 6 in D major, played with, if anything, even more vibrant abandon.


Anne Ozorio


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