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SEEN AND HEARD UK CONCERT REVIEW
Schubert and Dvorak: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with
Karl-Heinz Steffens (Conductor) and Christianne Stotijn (Mezzo). Birmingham
Symphony Hall, 10.2.2011 (GR)
The Birmingham Mahler Cycle rolls on. I’m not saying the wheels came off but one was distinctly loose on Feb 10th 2011. The series at the Birmingham Symphony Hall had reached the anniversary composer’s Kindertotenlieder. Having been delighted by the standard that began last September (see earlier MusicWeb reviews) this song cycle featuring Christianne Stotijn as soloist was eagerly anticipated. I had previous experience of the Dutch mezzo at the Symphony Hall during one of the free Sunday Morning Coffee Concerts a few years ago. Held to promote rising stars, I thought at the time that she had great potential. Since then this protégé of Bernard Haitink has received several complimentary press reports, particularly for her interpretations of Mahler; hence my enthusiasm. Perhaps it is precarious to build up hopes too high, and whilst there were positive points, I left the venue frustrated.
The first in Mahler’s series of Songs on the Death of Children is Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn, and the prominent oboe of Richard Simpson and horn of Elspeth Dutch set the mood of a mother who longs for the sun to dispel the darkness of the interminable night. But the sheer timbre of Stotijn did not seem dark enough to complement the mood set by the instrumentalists. I waited for the crescendo on Licht that offers some hope of respite for the anguished mother but it never materialised.
In Nun she’ ich wohl, the mother fixates upon the eyes of her departed, but the reason behind their sparkle as told in the Rückert lines failed to come across. The closing Sterne was a poignant moment, exploited by guest conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens and the strings, but it was too little, too late. The singer must enhance the intensity of the Mahler score, not simply provide a sober commentary.
The haunting tones from the cor anglais of CBSO’s Catherine Lowe reverberated throughout the next number – the glorious Wenn dein Mütterlein, my favourite among the Kindertotenlieder. I thought Stotijn struggled with the lower ranges required by this one, and the passion entailed on Ach! below par. It may be unfair to compare her tonal colour to say a Janet Baker or a Sarah Connolly, artists who both persuade and achieve the tingle-factor, something Stotijn failed to realize.
The German poet Friedrich Rückert suffered from the loss of his own children, so much so that he wrote 428 poems on the subject; Mahler set five in his cycle and Oft denk’ ich came next, the fourth. With its moments of both despondency and hope, it has a typical Mahlerian undercurrent of happiness tinged with darkness. Steffens galvanised the CBSO into capturing the drama of the text; his energy was infectious and Stotijn’s variation in phrase produced her best story-telling effort of the cycle.
For the final In diesem Wetter, Mahler draws parallels between nature and parenthood. The apprehension in the music is vaguely prophetic of events that would befall the composer, going on soon after to lose a child himself. Stotijn was reflective, but the chromatically infected melody from the orchestra was the greater contribution to the mood. The final chords were idyllic – ‘My Mahler’ moment of the evening (see THSH’s website www.mymahler.com). Any blame as to the shortcomings or otherwise of this Kindertotenlieder could not be laid at the CBSO or Steffens – their backing was exemplary throughout.
Schubert’s Symphony No 8 in B Minor started the concert programme, which had been dedicated to Sir Charles Mackerras, originally scheduled to be on the rostrum. Presumably the legendary interpreter of Czech music was party to the programme make-up as Dvořák’s Symphony No 7 in D Minor occupied the second half, completing the Mahler sandwich. The two symphonic works from Steffens and the CBSO were quite different in their impact. While the ‘Unfinished’ was somewhat staid and mechanical, the Dvořák was stimulating and flamboyant. Steffens had a distinguished career as principal clarinettist of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra before taking up the baton in 2007. Tagesspiegel, a local newspaper said he was a maestro ‘burning for action’. I got that impression, although he seemed happier with the romantic style than the classical. Steffens singled out the woodwind section for first recognition during the most spirited applause of the evening, and rightly so. The scratch team of Steffens and guest French leader Philippe Honoré had formed an instant bond with the CBSO; it was they who made the evening worthwhile.