Gorgeous! That applies to the performance, the
film and to Waltraud Meier! But I am sure you want to know more.
Since the film is much longer than the performance, nearly an
hour and a half, I will start with that. This is a German television
documentary made in 2001. It is typical of its genre in being
serious and almost free of TV trickery like people walking along
corridors and pictures of pointless scenery. It consists of a
series of interviews mostly in German (with subtitles) with Meier
herself and with fellow luminaries like Placido Domingo, Daniel
Barenboim and the opera director Jürgen Flimm, interspersed
with snippets of rehearsals and performances of Wozzeck, Tannhäuser,
Tristan and so on. Meier comes over as a serious and dedicated
artist with coherent ideas, presence and technique. There is much
talk of the interpretation of text, of stage action, of music
(of course) and one point sums up her attitude when she declares
that Wagner operas make other operatic music seem one dimensional.
She is an impressive lady in every respect and I was held fascinated
throughout. This is the sort of documentary that the BBC has forgotten
how to make and is all the worse for it. Well done German TV!
The Mahler performance is no less absorbing but
of course has an enormous amount of competition on CD if not on
film. Let me say at once that it stands up very well and no one
is going to be disappointed by any aspect. The tenor Torsten Kerl
was new to me but has a very fine voice with the sort of cutting
edge that makes the words tell and which reminded me of the inevitable
comparison, Julius Patzak, on that fabulous Decca recording with
Kathleen Ferrier and Bruno Walter. It has been my benchmark for
decades and it is so good nothing can shift it. If I say that
this performance made for interesting comparisons that is high
praise. Waltraud Meier is far too intelligent an artist to sink
to imitation, she has her own view of this devastating "Symphony
for soloists and orchestra". Her interpretation of the final
song, Der Abschied, is more restrained in that she eschews the
intense passion of Ferrier to focus on the subtleties of both
music and text. Where Ferrier nearly breaks one’s heart with her
searing, indeed soaring, statement "Fortune was not kind
to me in this world" (as well she might), Meier holds back
so that the text itself can make its own impact. This brings me
to the great joy of this DVD, the subtitles. They allow one to
experience the very strange world of Mahler’s Chinese poetry in
a way normally closed to those of us unable to hear German and
make sense of it. All the explanatory notes and parallel translations
in the world cannot make up for a grasp of what is being sung.
I felt liberated by this.
Semyon Bychkov is well served by his excellent
WDR orchestra and the camera spends enough time on them for us
to note their absorption in the task. This is the same orchestra
that gave us that wonderful Shostakovich symphony cycle conducted
by Barshai and they are just as good here. Bychkov misses some
of the heights and depths of this score. I miss the precipitous
collapse into the abyss half way through the final song, I also
miss the growling basses to which Decca give full attention on
their ancient 1952 recording. In exchange we have pictures and
the atmosphere of a live concert. It is almost a shock when the
final despairing notes die away and, after a typically respectful
pause from all concerned, the clapping erupts behind one. The
surround recording is not so wide ranging as one might get on
CD but the space makes up for any slight dynamic restrictions.
The visual image is quite excellent and the camera work unobtrusive.
If only the BBC would learn the lessons of this disk, no distractions,
no announcers bursting in with babble, no star interviewers, just
concentration on, and respect for, some great music brilliantly
Rush out and buy it, it costs less than half
a decent seat in the Barbican, the acoustic of the Köln Philharmonie
is better, you get a free film thrown in and encores are immediately
available. As I said at the start, gorgeous!