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.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Haitink/LSO at Barbican 13.10.09 - valedictory Schubert and Mahler "Das Lied" - Christiane Stotijn, Anthony D. Griffey

Certainly a major event early at the Proms last summer was Bernard Haitink’s twilit autumnal Mahler Ninth Symphony with the LSO. Pedantic bitterness in the scherzos, rhapsodic feeling to opening Andante comodo, and moreover transfigured light to infuse the final Adagio managed to preview a truly harrowing Lied von der Erde. Cast with two such lighter voices, it might have on paper looked off; especially British music critics have pointed this out. Back when Haitink made his only recording of this music - with Concertgebouw – Das Lied recorded as practically afterthought to finishing up recording all the numbered symphonies – it was the Ninth instead with which Haitink had found great success. Even in comparison with (an aging) Dame Janet Baker, this time it proved more the Das Lied; the Ninth still had much to commend it.

The program opened with Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony. Even though the outline from which Haitink worked here seemed conventional, its thorough outworking went more than just the extra mile, especially in the first movement - uncertain attack or two in ensemble inconspicuous. The pace here - very broad - helped delve out great inner nuance and tragic weight beneath the dramatic argument here.

More than playing it, lower strings deeply intoned their introductory statement. Slow tremolo of violins cast a wintry pall over the whole frame and landscape out of which emerged winding, pleading oboe solo of emotional desolation. An engine of some driving rhythm kept pulse alive through bridge in the Exposition, but held back on accents with sufficiently phlegmatic tenuti, to in effect stem any tide. Gentle second theme emerged as something just to merely intimate instead of more obviously giving it complete shape. Haitink treated its reprise off loud tuttis as consequents – as though to drain what vitality might have been required to muster the strength to make tutti naturally resound.

Violins entered somewhat from behind over ominous rustling very dark tremolo in the basses to form very long, extended line in crescendo over internal antiphony among woodwinds. Such led into not especially incisive downward but truly anguished sharp drops from crests of the line. With great bitter despondency, weariness the full orchestra as though (as it sounded afterwards) taking or extending the Development section uninterruptedly a bit into a secondary development was accented as such, without being obviously incisive. Firm grip on all this continued unhindered.

Relief through Schubert’s recapitulating the oboe idea was then such as just simply one could anticipate. D Major recapitulated second theme was obviously a little brighter in color - purposefully so - in contrast with how it sounded before. Coda was very expansive from lower strings, upper string tremoli then rising firmly to climax and long yet firm sigh from violins toward strong final despondent chords from the orchestra. Finality to such utterance was sublime.

Moderate pacing for the Andante - well observed - very successfully avoided stodginess. With subdued eloquence, horns gently, very warmly framed lean but winsomely shaped line from the violins, in contrast with firm march in lower string octaves through framing ritornello to follow. With anxiously pleading deep tone, Andrew Richards (clarinet) phrased his C-sharp minor idea, assisting his woodwind colleagues in making gentle the falling off thereof in parallel major key – replying tutti incisive. Violins then effectively eschewed cheap dovetailing off such by fully securing the line - making unusually effective transition to opening theme reprise. Tutti answering wary reprise of second theme in A Minor had Hatink get his violins to phrase their arched descant over opening to such tutti from behind just enough to make something more trenchant to accents below than usual. After considerable relaxation of the tense, weary mood of the first movement, it was just slightly as though the listener at this point for the argument here should be taken slightly unawares. We assume too much how well we know this piece.

Gentle spreading light and lissome accent was made to close section before truly haunting account of the coda to this movement and to the symphony itself. It was most of all in the utter stillness of the pianissimo unison line in the violins that suggested picture of our being guided to perhaps the opening out of another world - as though in other words to attempt revealing in dim light hint of what might lie just beyond such gently framed but very wide, expansive horizon. Mark Berry (Seen and Heard) suggested presence of Mahlerian vistas from Haitink.

After Schubert came the Mahler. Haitink’s rhythmic organization for opening lines to first movement emerged subtle and complex. It had lift to feel as though in one, but at once somewhat phlegmatically spelled out the eighth notes that beckon off opening dotted quarter in the horns. Instead of making the line sag, as is conventional, all cumulatively led through first refrain in Griffey’s part with febrile descending trills supple in aplomb – above so much seemingly drained of all vitality. Broadly moderate paced violin arpeggio framing all this had fine sweep, helping make piquant accenting to follow.

Griffey and Haitink both found right lilt to “Wenn der Kummer naht”, decorated by light flute trills and portamento laced descant in violins. The trilled sounds from nature on bass clarinet under Griffey, usually too matter-of-fact to be noticed, doubled as shudder underneath, such as one might more forcefully had heard from double bass tremoli in the preceding Schubert - perhaps near as dissonantly, and interchangeably so. “Dunkel ist das leben” was also warm, relaxed, but never coy, doubled and imitated so suavely by Andrew Richards (clarinet). Brass then entered very crisp, as mixed in with baroque sickly incisive filigree from celesta and violins, in contrast with decisive stretto in strings and brass at “Herr des Hauses”, opening second verse. Violins took not long to wrap themselves in tone of great weariness. Flutter tongued flutes and solo trumpet light fanfare mixed, in so decoratively coloring firm, emotionally subdued accenting from English horn on opening horn motif as to support lilting supple allargando line in violins above for truly definitive playing here.

Anthony Dean Griffey had most work done for him toward striving for deep sorrow with which he sublimely imbued “Das Firmament” - something so beyond capacity of the drunkard in Li Bai to grasp - room left over for tenor to briefly philosophize over this. Expressionistic terror effectively stacked up through “Du aber, Mensch.” Griffey (understandably) veered close to barking a few lines; very little focus was lost as any consequence. LSO violins contrasted sweet reverie over closing “Dunkel ist” with lean, anguished appoggiatura on E to D-sharp, as though to cut right through, even more than accenting trumpets, innermost being of any auditors in its grip here.

Sparseness of texture was made suavely acute for starting “Einsame im Herbst” - more emotional desolation to be conveyed than textural clarity. One could feel early frost with violins playing pianissimo in divided thirds, with rocking open fifths from lower winds. Christiane Stotjin opened in youthful, febrile tone, without the deep tone of some - as cited before. With less overt stress on the modernism of Mahler’s writing, that Metzmacher very curiously made somewhat of an albatross for himself last spring, Stotjin this time got more the expressive impetus and accents, variety of coloring to make her voice and tonal quality match up ideally here with all its content here.

Haitink on purpose made tentative segue into ‘Was meint, ein Kunstler” - so confided by Stotjin. She then helped bring in ephemeral fresh shaft of light for “Der susse duft.” Haitink wearily on purpose built line to moment for Stotjin to sing, in passing, “Mein herz ist mude.” Stotjin then expertly contrasted from line before quite an instrumental timbre for “Ich weine viel” – extending into spare oboe and horn duet to spin out from voice trailing off. Urgent, despondent longing with “Der Herbst," enhanced by darker tone and vibrato prepared a fine crescendo to “Sonne der Liebe.” Haitink very effectively stressed the breakdown in awkwardly sloping down harmonic progression off crest of this. Effortlessly, sad and weary, closing lines resounded.

Haitink just gradually engaged the open chinoiserie of “Von de jugend” - Griffey lightly expressive with it throughout. Horn call was both at once pianissimo and crisply accented, with Haitink still phlegmatic – shades of Klemperer for sure or perhaps of Horenstein – in getting this going. Haitink managed too to give us a middle section that was both at once light in texture, but in phrasing it a long extended heavy sigh. Griffey, as lingering as he was to end this, fell slightly short of Haitink, with the latter’s wafting of closing lines underneath sprightly chatter from upper winds.

“Von der Schonheit” started ideally lissome, but as though emerging from barely obscured dark layer lingering well beneath. Stotjin started off lightly ironic - violins aloft, as though approaching some state of reverie, without turning insipid with such nuance while Stotjin added some tang to “Neckerien zu’ to close her opening stanza. Middle section, in marked contrast with Metzmacher last spring, was quite Klemperer-esque in maintaining reticent pulse; Stotjin found it considerably easier sailing than breakneck pace before. Eroticism, followed by equally suggestive naivete, was second nature for Stotijn here for so wunderhorn a lied as this. Less heavy than with Klemperer was so much, but also less of the suggestive pull or tug to hesitations closing this song out. All came to a warm conclusion, with dark insinuations still, more subtly, lurking underneath.

Naturally forced joy and merriment from dry, randy woodwinds opened “Trunkene im Fruhling”, Violins, approaching lines phlegmatically, but purposefully with utter ease revealed threat of drifting off into sleep, deftly assisted by Gordon Nikolitch (leader) – oblivious winds still chattering away. Griffey, lightly, almost sounding Schreier-esque, suggested well some baritonal depth for waking up to realize spring has arrived -“Der Lenz ist da." Haitink colloquially pulled out all stops for the dark intimations of “Aus tiefstern Schauern” (so distinctive to ear of Anton Webern). Griffey made most expressive his words, catching with lilt the inebriation in play throughout. Flourish during coda was aptly, prudently terraced; not to come across as just so much orchestrated clutter as often happens.

Opening sonorities for ‘Abschied” were utterly funereal - all light starting to fade out from the horizon. Stotjin and Metzmacher both had most success with “Abschied” in Berlin; Haitink took things further, but much slower (also somewhat than with Janet Baker). Metzmacher could do so yet at his own tempos. Haitink took interludes between vocal lines, stanzas very broadly, even often standing still, for arioso, recitative in woodwinds to sound forth over frequently empty space. Mahler having spoken manic-depressively of “Das Lied’ - perhaps not since Klemperer (EMI) did such quality resonate to extent it did here. Even at so slow a tread - Klemperer certainly less so – one could still pick up keen sense of this music’s internal structure - ongoing cycles of line and rhythm germinating, flowing beneath, encircling long lines of cortege, taking leave, and lament.

Haitink eschewed making quaint the first twenty-eight minutes of “Abschied” - as he hears it now mired down by steady undercurrent of great longing and despair. Individual voices over dark sonorities below most naturally emerged, sang, then gradually vanished, but while Haitink constantly preserved line and tension throughout. “Es wehet kuhl”, occurring soon before part three of the Exposition, has seldom sounded so unearthly still, following “Der Welt schlaft ein” and dark descending lower winds. On similar introductory motif, Stotijn started off very simply, just gradually anticipating “Oh sieh! Wie eine Silberbarke’ A lighter mezzo, Stotijn allowed little artificial darkening of the sound, toward making text so very expressive – albeit running into mild strain with end of line above. Her ardor for "Der Bach singt", over pleading oboe was sublime.

There was then sufficient room to mildly expand out on "Alle sehnsucht”, still more, with erotic charge on “Wo bleibst du” - having begun “Ich sehne mich” so well. Orchestra, still ascetically repressed, groped out from behind toward reaching greater expressive depth, as though, but quietly possessed, drunk on their lines. It was all as though necessary impetus to work Stotijn even perhaps mildly beyond what vocal capacity might be at her disposal, to so effectively ride “O schonheit – trunk’ne Welt," as she did.

Perspective throughout was all with ear for where all was headed. It was so moving too here the full empathy, to be encountering such youthful persona – as Mahler still so youthfully longed for life to continue - in Stotijn’s tone, making the deeper expression of a Ludwig, Ferrier, even Forrester seem mildly self-conscious by comparison. This too was great expression and music-making. The risk of course is to push too much - as happened with Agnes Baltsa (EMI/Tennstedt). What already cost Baltsa – hollowed out middle register - were the Amneris’s, Eboli’s, Carmen’s.

Answer for how things went interpretively – with a “Fliessend” at close of Exposition not particularly so for lines just mentioned - was in there still being momentum to drive clear active pulse underneath, free motion through all this. Lament for cello in lower middle register sounded forth with close to unbearable regret as to anticipate what was to follow. Unspeakable shudder in lower strings for long prelude to the Recapitiulation in lower strings was existential horror epitomized - with despondent close from deep woodwinds into cries that followed. “Er stieg von Pferd” intimated weeping in the tone - yet as still unwilling to let even this sink into bathos. “Er sprach” and “Du, mein Freund” offered warmth, yearning, angst - with close to no glimmer of hope left at all.

Stotijn then made something still more confidential of third section reprise. Nothing wanting for expressive contrast through “Abschied” thus far - here represented all light having departed for good. There soon opened anticipatory sense however of its restoration. For Stotijn’s ardent, fecund “Die liebe Erde all’uberall, Haitink reached back almost beyond what is realistic to return it very gradually. It was as though to have come from a different world - one we could then reckon four minutes before the end, from which all desire has vanished. There had been no need earlier to eviscerate out of earlier passages the emotional fiber of this music to get this, as happens in such silken sonorities as Karajan with his Berliners made show of achieving throughout. The LSO, delicately laced here with mandolin and celesta sounded as though merely playing forth a world having already drunk of its last dregs - to paraphrase Mozart’s Commendatore - to partake now of only celestial meat and drink. “Ewig’s”, from liquid, ample toned Stotijn were perfect. Stotijn completely disappeared into gentle mist coming from sublime reaches afar the most ideally I have heard such do so yet.

There still must be more to get out of this, upon rehearing it. Small wonder what Mahler said of to what considerable lengths this music could drive someone. He also said that one day his time would come. This was most assuredly a “Das Lied” for our time.

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