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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Tod und Verklärung
, Op. 24 (1889) [23:38]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde
(1908) [64:37]
Paul Groves (tenor); Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Neeme Järvi
rec. 2012, Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland
Subtitles: English, French, German, Japanese
Region code: Worldwide
Video: 16:9 widescreen;
Sound: DTS Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and PCM Digital 2.0 Stereo.
VAI 8201 Blu-ray [92:00]

This Blu-ray disc preserves Neeme Järvi’s inaugural concert as Music and Artistic Director of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.

The chief interest here lies in the performance of Das Lied von der Erde and, more specifically, the fact that Järvi opts for the quite rarely-heard baritone alternative in the even-numbered songs. Thomas Hampson, who was 57 at the time of this performance, has recorded the work before: he made a studio version for EMI with Sir Simon Rattle as long ago as 1995. Hampson was 40 then and one can tell, listening to the two versions, that the performance with Rattle is that of a younger man – and voice. However, seventeen years later his voice remains a beautiful instrument and he was even more experienced by the time he came to sing it for Järvi. In passing, I wonder how many opportunities he gets to sing this work.

He gives a performance of great subtlety and feeling. The part contains many high-lying passages, most of which are to be sung softly. Perhaps that’s a major reason why so few baritones essay the role. Hampson’s technique is such that he’s able to negotiate all these expertly. He also displays an excellent sense of line and his legato singing and firmly focussed voice give great pleasure, When you factor in also that he sings with fine feeling and invests the words with meaning then you have a pretty persuasive case for Mahler’s baritone alternative.

It has to be said that there are moments where the female voice is better equipped for Mahler’s writing. For all his skill the size and timbre of his voice is such that Hampson can’t quite float the line at the very start of ‘Der Abschied’ in the way that the best mezzos can. Nor does he manage to sound as withdrawn as a top-class mezzo can when the singer resumes at ‘Er stieg vom Pferd’ after the extended orchestral interlude in that long last song. Overall, Hampson makes the most compelling case I’ve yet heard for a baritone in this role – even more so than he did with Rattle.

When I first saw this Blu-ray in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio I agreed with my colleagues that in the first song Paul Groves “took a little time to settle; he didn’t seem sufficiently assertive”. Having had the chance now for more detailed viewing, I’m very happy to withdraw that caveat. I’ve admired Groves in the past, notably in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius (review ~ review) and here too he turns in a fine performance. His tone is clear and ringing and his diction is excellent. He may not have as much vocal heft as some tenors have brought to ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ but his performance is nonetheless thoroughly convincing. I also enjoyed very much his rendition of ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’, especially the second half of the song (from “der Vogel zwitschert: Ja!”; in these pages the literal twinkle in his eye is reflected in his singing.

Järvi’s conducting puzzles me. Often when the camera shows him he seems to be doing little more than beating time and doing so, moreover, with quite a stiff beat. There’s little in the way of gesticulation or cues to the orchestra and often a surprising lack of eye contact. As we shall see, matters are a bit different in the Strauss piece. Järvi does become a bit more animated as the score unfolds, especially in the long orchestral interlude in ‘Der Abschied’ but I was still surprised that he appears so cool. Of course, it may well be that he feels that all that is necessary has been done in the rehearsals – and the orchestra plays well for him. The other possibility is that the years are catching up with him – he was 75 when the performance was given.

To be truthful, the comparisons I made with the Rattle audio recording were done mainly to compare Hampson’s respective performances but I don’t think there’s much doubt who is the more penetrating Mahler conductor. I’ve referred already to the orchestral interlude in ‘Der Abschied’. Even before I listened to Rattle I thought it lacked gravitas in Järvi’s hands – for one thing it’s too briskly paced but Rattle makes it doom-laden. Well though the Swiss orchestra plays, you can tell which conductor has schooled his players more deeply in the nuances of Mahler playing – and how to project with power when necessary. One further example will suffice. At the start of ‘Der Abschied’ those deep, ominous tolling chords sound utterly full of foreboding in Rattle’s hands – and I’ll bet he rehearsed them for ages to get the sonority just as he wanted it. Järvi simply can’t match that. Still, on its own terms his performance is a good one with much to admire in the orchestral contribution – notably from the principal oboe and flute – and the performance is well worth hearing for the two soloists.

If I hadn’t known I would have thought that the opening work, Tod und Verklärung, was from a different concert because here Järvi is much more animated. He gives plenty of cues to the orchestra and he’s much more ready to gesticulate or to mould a phrase. Also his beat, which often seemed rather stiff in the Mahler, is less constrained here. I wonder why this should be. Perhaps he feels more at home in the Strauss? Whatever the cause his conducting imparts more energy to the orchestra. Even so, I feel the performance is just a bit plain-spoken. I’ve heard other conductors bring out the drama in the piece more successfully and the transfiguration music itself rather misses the redemptive majesty, not least because until the closing pages Järvi paces the music a little too swiftly, I think. It’s a decent performance but not one that had me gripped.

The camerawork is good and the pictures are clear. On my equipment the sound reproduced well.

John Quinn



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