The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Monday, June 1, 2009

DSO Berlin/Metzmacher: Aufbruch 1909 orchestral concert - part 1 - Das Lied von der Erde

This program presented what is considered calling card for Ingo Metzmacher with any good major ensemble - Mahler and Schoenberg. On one, he merely (and frustratingly) suggested the possibilities. On the other, results seemed imperceptible as any distance at all from absolutely definitive.

Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde unusually found itself on the first half of this concert. There is hardly any more vigorous thrust than with which such can begin for first movement as happened here. It seemed before the singer entered mostly as though such purposeful thrust infused with classical objectivity might hold sway. American tenor Stephen Gould, in on several days notice for Johan Botha, started 'Das Trinkleid von Jammer der Erde' lachrymose, but full in sound, before reaching a first high, strained B-Flat. Thereafter, there was a frequent infusion of allargando and with frequent lunging about toward high notes, of heavy emphases. Metzmacher followed Gould more often than not on what he wanted. DSO Berlin etched the development section with its English horn solo and flutter-tonguing flutes poetically; Gould then re-entered and ignored the dynamics.

Gould sang this with more than ample voice. In fact he did so to the point that his tubular manner of projecting his baritonal timbre became too easily hardened, hooty, and at times questionable in intonation – so then what one could assess as little better than a poor man’s Hans Hopf. With low priority for the text itself - how to provide it good color and meaning - his interpretation came across as sophomoric.

"Der Einsame im Herbst" started off quite breezily, sloughing off the 'Enmudet' in the tempo marking entirely and then not allowing the Fliessend markings for B sections of the movement to be heeded in either any noticeable fashion. There seemed to be developing here an emphasis on the linearity of the music that one or two chamber ensemble reductions of this score suggest could be a way of proceeding overall. The method for achieving such fragmentation, sense thereof in the first song, with allargandi, lunging onto and off the crest of the line, though never to be outre, seemed considerably different. In Christianne Stotijn, Metzmacher had a considerably different type of artist (better to have been paired with Johan Botha). I'd hate to think that he was merely tailoring his interpretation of Mahler to suit the character of his two individual singers. That, however, is what really seemed to be happening.

Stotijn approached much of her part, even through Abscheid with a lighter tone, lighter touch than is perhaps the norm. She could still prove at times how well and quite beautifully her voice fills out in certain areas of her range. Simplicity of emotion and expression seemed to be the mainstay here. In fact, there is something to be said for singing this music this way - with sense of naive engagement with the world, immersion in and love for nature, and heartfelt desire to cling to life while still young. All that, in place of Das Lied sounding like immediate sequel to the Gesellen Lieder or Knaben Wunderhorn, would work, once Stotijn has lived with this music longer and made it a little more her own. A generic 'tragedy queen' approach to the three even-numbered movements of Das Lied ultimately cuts things to really even less. Curious that "Meine kleine Lampe" was darker in color than "Mein Herz ist mude" right before it - even suggesting perhaps a deconstructionist impetus.

"Sonne der Liebe" was understated, but Metzmacher made clear indication of his shaping of what followed it by his decisively angular approach to the abrupt downward climb from this line (marked Drangend) and in the ending postlude. He avoided too, along with Stotijn, sentimentalizing this music, not that it should be knee-jerk to anyone that this and Abscheid should leave us all soaked in bathos.

Scherzo of Das Lied began with Von der Jugend. Gould started mezzo-forte but with pleasing insouciance, a smile to the tone that certainly works. Satisfied that he had started so well, he - other than singing the notes and text - ignored most of the rest. The magically pensive, literally reflective middle section just about completely went for naught. It sounds of course that Von Der Jugend was written for a different kind of tenor than Der Trinkleid. Well, those singers who can work their voices into the manner or Fach that may approximate Viennese well are going to find versatility with which to be able to handle both movements. If Gould wanted better interpretively here than just good enough for him, may I suggest after the fact that he listen again to Ji-Min Park (Graf Albert -lissome supporting part) on a Royal Opera transcript of Die Tote Stadt in which Gould (Paul) starred himself.

Von der Schonheit started with limpid, translucent, febrile grace from DSO Berlin and with Stotijn starting off emotionally cool but relaxed. The horse-gallop middle section started off forthright and vigorously as it should, but then Metzmacher pushed the end of this section so much, that it was enough for Stotijn just to be able to speak the lines, much less having to sing them. Stotijn is not the first to get tripped up here by who is on the podium. In fact, I must stop and scratch my head to wonder just from where Metzmacher might have learned to conduct this passage so – whether or not he could indeed have from somewhere. The song ended with the deft touch, but hollow quality to Stotijn's lower middle register got a little uncomfortably exposed – Stotijn having put in a little aerobics a moment or two earlier - for the good of a line or two toward end of this song.

It was back to Gould one last time for Der Trunkene im Fruhling, by which time he had developed the art of providing enough nuance to just only the last note or two or last word to a number of phrases. He slammed into "Der Lenz ist da" so - enough that the bird that must arrive to report this would have flown away in great haste or fright, never to chance announcing ‘Lenz’ out loud again. Metzmacher, who was getting just about everything right thus far, loosened up several moments later his discipline or control over sonorities, once things started speeding up. He is in good company for letting such incidence occur at the end of 'Drunkard in Spring;' careless with it, its coda sounds more like clutter than music. The preceding sonorities were fine – those immediately following 'Der Lenz ist da' that so transfixed Anton Webern.

One thought it might have taken "Abscheid" to solve the enigma as to how uncertain things sounded with Metzmacher doing Das Lied thus far; here, quite oddly enough, we were denied. The five minute cortege ritornello at midpoint was well nigh perfect, at least up until shortchanging a moment in buildup to the climax to it and then the climax of it itself. Two lengthy principal flute solos, gorgeously played, had all the space, poetry they needed. On the other hand, there seemed so often an uncertainty about maintaining well enough an underlying steady pulsation even at the start of “Abscheid.” Preparation for numerous places, sections felt inadequate - most acutely - perhaps to avoid bathos - at “O muden Menschen.”

Things came into focus during the second section of the Exposition - though even the start of this felt rushed - and one could for several minutes sense a complete grasp of the full sonorities in the writing. Metzmacher having clipped “O schonheit” to help Stotijn sustain it, Stotijn a moment later then wisely goaded the very closing “Lebens trunkne Welt” to third part of the Exposition in such a way that got Metzmacher and orchestra entirely back on page. Christianne Stotijn, for the second half of “Abscheid,” showed greater involvement than earlier in this.

Other than understatement of the desolation of opening lines to the Recapitulation, Stotijn and Metzmacher gave here of their best the entire evening thus far, Stotijn alternately gentle, confiding, resigned, mildly despondent as called for. Getting near midway through the abbreviated second section of this, things twice started getting rushed again, a little perhaps after the model of early Bruno Walter, but with less of a consistent idea than Walter had. “Die liebe Erde”, its inebriated sonorities, got mildly shortchanged. Then with the entrance of celesta and the ‘Ewig’s’, Stotijn’s voice, so light, trailing off, melting away into the orchestral fabric, was close to ideal for translucent close to this – to what had been so much of the way a problematic, sometimes close to two-dimensional rendition of Mahler’s Chinese ‘symphony of songs.’

The linearity of Mahler’s late style seems to intrigue Metzmacher most - how such conceptualizing contributed to a breakdown in tonality and expected harmonic stability along with it. Two things bothered me, however. On the one hand, if there is something clear, cogent to say in making decisions about interpreting this music, its rich poetry and imagery, I welcome there being an irritating approach to doing it. Leave in a few clear markers of what one is about to those first and foremost of all who know the piece.

One on the other hand also does not have to impose one’s will, regardless the consequences for them, on soloists, such as for instance Karajan did, to have and to insist upon a commanding lead. Das Lied is essentially a symphony with widely varied leading vocal and (also) instrumental obbligati. The motives here were right and sincere. The elements of potentially a fine interpretation of this masterpiece are here but remain in gestation. So better to move on – that for now Metzmacher’s interpretation of Mahler’s ‘Das Lied’ should sit in queue as ‘work-in-progress.'

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