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The Vienna Collection - BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert, Schubert and Mahler: Petra Lang (mezzo soprano) and Adrian Baianu (piano); LSO St Luke’s, London 13.10.2009 (JPr)

This was the final recital in the LSO St Luke’s ‘Vienna Collection’ series of BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concerts for which Petra Lang performed a selection of songs by Schubert followed by Mahler’s

By the time Schubert died in 1828 he had written over 600 songs and although the poems varied in quality,  all his compositions never failed to couple both the words and the music to serve a dramatic purpose. The chosen set of songs generally eschewed the simple choices that we generally associate him with, viz. a typically Romantic Lied in which there is a lonely wanderer in a spring pasture accompanied by the sounds of a gentle brook and lots of pining for love. Instead, in the songs chosen there was spirituality, love and loss, often some fantasy and everything often associated with quasi-expressionist angst. Every song called for a searching interpretations and the need for the soloist to have potent storytelling abilities.

This choice of occasionally menacing and dramatic Schubert songs would seem ideal for the mezzo soprano, Petra Lang, who is a compelling stage performer as those who saw her as Ortrud at Covent Garden earlier this year will have witnessed. She began with one of the composer’s later pieces from 1825,
Die Allmacht. This song has a monumental grandeur and is clearly operatic:  and like most of  later  Schubert it requires a voice of astonishing range with some full and powerful top notes.  I didn’t feel this was the best choice to open Ms Lang’s programme as she wasn’t entirely at ease throughout it although It was already clear her voice had all the colour, notes and volume required. This   was shown to better effect in her second song, Der Tod und das Mädchen, and then in the rest of her recital programme. Even the best voices oftenreveal some weakness,  but apparently not Ms Lang’s. Hers is full-toned and flexible; her musical intelligence gives expressiveness to every phrase and she has an almost unique ability in modern recitalists to end a long-spun melodic line as strongly as she begins it. Her clear diction is another impressive feature of her singing.

‘Death and the Maiden’ is a setting of a poem by Matthias Claudius and he makes of Death, Freund Hein, a figure of comfort and relief though this is a claim undermined by the insistently sinister rhythm of the music,  well captured by Adrian Baianu’s sensitive accompaniment. Here Ms Lang affectingly gave us the Maiden’s impassioned plea for Death to pass her by, as well as the frighteningly implacable voice of Death who asks for her hand.

Among other highlights of her eight Schubert Lieder was  the moment when  Ms Lang penetrated the full horror of
Der Zwerg, a bizarre ballad - even by medieval German standards . This song depicts a beautiful young queen being slowly strangled and dumped into the sea by a twisted and deformed court jester who has been driven mad by jealousy for her affections. She was then suitably ecstatic in Die junge Nonne where the Catholic poet Jakob Nikolaus’s nun, to the accompaniment of the bell for Mass tolling in the piano, achieves rapturous ecstasy as she sings ‘Es lockt mich das süße Getön’ (The sweet sound lures me). This transfiguration continues through Litanai auf das Fest aller Seelen and although Schubert’s attitude to organised religion appears ambivalent at best, the two of the nine verses sung here reveal that the composer had a sensitive for ritual and an appreciation for its importance to true believers. Ms Lang sang it with a most suitable – rapt and ravishing - prayer-like intensity.

To conclude this set was Erlkönig, one of the best known of all Schubert’s songs. Surprisingly, for a work that is a miniature epic masterpiece containing a complete unity of lyrical and dramatic elements, this song  is from the composer’s early years. Goethe’s 1782 ghostly ballad was set to music in 1815 and the vividly dramatic story shows a father anxiously riding through the forest with his sick child in his arms;  the child having been lured from him by the sinister elf-king of the title. Clearly heard throughout the song is the overpowering fear of the ride,  evocatively brought out by Adrian Baianu in his virtuosic accompaniment which revelled in the mounting terror. It was left to Ms Lang to convey the father's fear and the seductive power of the ‘Erlkönig’. If evidence was ever needed that Petra Lang is an exceptional Lieder singer-interpreter then Erlkönig showed her capabilities to the full. Ms Lang gave us three quite distinct timbres for the stern, uncomprehending father, the pleading child and the cajoling, coaxing Erlkönig and breathed new life into a very familiar song.

Petra Lang proved herself an intelligent interpreter of Schubert but she is more renowned for her profound musical bond with Mahler. Throughout the Rückert-Lieder she was controlled and regal, singing with heartfelt sincerity; the poetry and music was, eloquent, searingly intense or immensely moving as appropriate.  It was a deeply satisfying performance.

This group of songs composed during 1901 and 1902 to texts by Friedrich Rückert was never intended as a cycle and so have no fixed order of performance. In the first song (Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft), she refined her luxuriant tone to the merest thread of sound for the ‘gentle fragrance’. In Liebst du um Schönheit her voice soared confidently up to the ecstatic final phrases, and in the third (Blick mir nicht in die Lieder!) she conveyed all the sly wit of ‘Dann vor allen nasche du!’ Her finest singing however, came in ‘Um Mitternacht’ where ‘O Menschheit’ (O Mankind) was redolently full of compassion and the glorious rapture of ‘Herr über Tod und Leben’ could not have been more incandescently sung. Finally, ‘Ich bin der Welt was sung with great bittersweet emotional truth and the serene resignation of someone, who according to Rückert, is ‘lost to the world’. Through all this Adrian Baianu  did nothing  to draw the audience’s focus away from Petra Lang,  yet was her equal in eloquently sensitive chamber-like phrasing.

As an encore Petra Lang sang Mahler’s Urlicht for which there was an immaculate stillness from both voice and piano. Her fervent rendition was final confirmation of a singer at the height of her musical and expressive powers.

Jim Pritchard

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 6 November at 1pm. And Petra Lang sings the Wesendonck-Lieder with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted by Christoph Eschenbach) on Wednesday 4 November at the Royal Festival Hall (for more information see

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