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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Dr Kultur: Gustav Mahler Todestag Konzert. Glowing valecdictory 'Das Lied.' Claudio Abbado. A.S.von Otter, Jonas Kaufmann. Philharmonie. 18.5.11

Claudio Abbado accepted honor of doing 2011 Mahler Todestag concert for Berlin – commemorative of his passing one century ago. Two works from Gustav Mahler’s late period occupied this program. Adagio from the unfinished Tenth Symphony opened. Ample, well varied tonal opulence made interpretation here distinctive. A sense of contaminazione – through developing thematic material - became something with which to reckon. Lushness from the strings hearkened back to days the Berlin Philharmonic could play this music with still greater ease. The Philharmonic grew in other ways more attuned to playing Mahler under Abbado - its boorishness, klezmar, eccentricities all becoming more of a natural than during tenure preceding his.

Opening violas resounded distraught – searching, trailing off during introductory idea provided – then to fully realize obbligato to opulent first subject. Abbado deliberately marked recurrent theme for B section during its first visitation. More fully harmonized, brass increasingly prominent, Abbado slightly set back restatement of first theme to build early melodic intensity before through variation process thematic elements then begin disintegrating. Violins passionately sang descant over main theme, for all then to abruptly dissipate into trailing off recitative. Outpouring of emotion henceforth sounded put somewhat at an aesthetic distance, as though to temporally observe from afar.

Any deconstructionist feel is really Mahler’s own – that Abbado let speak for itself – also to eschew notion, even after numerous completions of the Tenth that it is still anything but a torso. (I believe Mahler Ten, though arguably could be completed through the third movement – there seems almost enough there for even the obviously uncompleted first scherzo second movement, but still silly to have attempted completing anything past ‘Purgatorio’ - brief third movement interlude.

Color during quasi-Allegretto-like Andante pages was piquant, with pizzicati in violas and cellos enhancing spectral pre-Messiaen bird call, flutter in woodwinds. Voicing in lower strings, doubled sometimes in the bassoons that often get covered up in an ersatz-Brahms or perhaps Reger like dense texture got fully drawn out to both expand upon the opulence of Mahler’s rhetoric while making one hear from beneath what also tears at, rends the fabric. Chamber groupings of winds with concertmaster strung out light febrile lines between dense tutti.

Any sign of insecurity here was likely due to nature of the material itself. One might have sensed matter-of-fact trailing of unaccompanied violins' duet right before damply realized organ like progression leading into the Adagio’s dissonant climax. Light Abbado shot through such accumulated dissonance then infused lines of peaceful resolve through the remainder of this while keeping violins restrained with their vibrato – until chromatically leaning into low harp starting cadence preparing evocative chord to follow. Brief moment stable in the key of E-Flat high in the violins provided fine benediction – Abbado following Mahler’s instructions to keep matters here simple. This place can ideally, hypothetically provide the listener glimpse of the other side – such a way the Tenth’s very incomplete finale gets spoken of. This Adagio, under the right circumstances, will say all that Mahler Ten can say; here it did.

The other symphony on this program was one alongside that of the Eighth Abbado has conducted least frequently of all of Mahler’s symphonies – unofficially his ninth - just called ‘Das Lied von der Erde.’ Numerous early Abbado Mahler performances were with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A cool temperament, grasp of atmosphere was paramount then, stressing the surface brilliance, linear clarity of Mahler’s writing, its virtuosity more than other factors then. A more thorough musicality, emotional depth he has eventually well provided, especially through again the Ruckert and Ninth symphonies with Berlin.

A glowing opulent radiance suffused the first movement, ‘Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde’ throughout. Such in Mahler from the Berlin Philharmonic often gets replaced nowadays by something drier or urbane Things on top lines here started forthright in one, with feeling of some dragging (far) underneath. With this opening movement, Abbado seemed restrained about opening out very much, preferring to defer to his tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Kaufmann with lean tone and a ringing top brought out, unusually febrile, great expressivity of timbre while sustaining good legato and keen, impassioned attention to text. The forced joy on for instance ‘Herr, dieser Haus’, anti-heroism, deep angst came across completely. This piece can hardly get sung better than this.

Kaufmann resounded forth at ease with a ringing ‘euch Klingen’ – long sustained appoggiatura on (B-Flat and) A to fill out ‘Welkt hin du stribst. While stopping short of emphasizing surface brilliance at the music’s expense, Abbado continued slightly cool, detached, while always attentive to Kaufmann. English horn solo/obbligato during central orchestral interlude of this helped fill matters out, complemented morosely by Kaufmann on ‘Das Firmanent,’ for all to then fill with menace for ‘Du aber Mensch’; and ‘following.’ Even with Abbado deferring just emotionally one or two layers back, Kaufmann made very intense the start of last full stanza to this, then to gently back off at tormented brindisi’s conclusion. Abbado provided strong profile to dramatic utterances during its closing stanza.

In contrast with the more contralto like Thorborg, Ferrier, or Ludwig, we had here near as illustriously Anne Sofie Von Otter. “Einsam in Herbst’ here started off at easily flowing pace, never rushed - all orchestrally continuing to leave, likely deceptively a weightless impression. A richer quality to mezzo of choice’s middle register might be coveted, but pay-off in phrasing this music from a more youthful, intimate perspective here was very clear.

Between woodwind and string sonorities from the Philharmonic and Von Otter, there was in some of the modal harmony, lines a blended sense of capturing the blues, greens, rich lavenders of Mahler’s sonorities here. Gentle sense of naïve wonder filled Von Otter’s voice at ‘man meint ein Kunstler.’ Through passing indications of despondency, Abbado connected through overall flowing line without undercutting their emotional or expressive content. “Mein Herz ist mude”, coming off such a moment Von Otter darkly intimated in place of heavily underlining it. Contrast between achieving a brightly plaintive ‘Ich komm zu dir’ and finding deep sadness for ‘ich weine viel’ was excellent.

One had to rely upon the Berlin Philharmonic for sufficient lightness on ‘Von der Jugend.’ Deeply expressive was Kaufmann’s handling of sudden infusion of melancholy halfway through – after starting this reticent, heavily on purpose, over Abbado and Berliners lightly pointing the chinoserie; they then joined Kaufmann in lingering over melancholy of having encountered something deep, so unknowable midway through.

Lightness through ‘Von der schoenheit’ was, especially from woodwinds Mozartean - youthful stance of Von Otter to match. Several weak low notes apart, all gradually opened out to a world half-opiate, half-transfigured. Abbado wisely chose to keep slight lid on bacchanalian accents during middle section to this, both without losing character or instead unduly rushing Von Otter through it. Combined deep yearning and brightly rich colors infused closing stanzas, passing moment of occluding despondency in postlude to this - not shortchanged - only to highlight expression, sound world in very strong relief.

“Der Trunkene in Fruhling’, slightly deliberately paced, anticipating ‘Abscheid’ somewhat, sank things in more deeply. Kaufmann, equally as earlier, was again perfect. Something of a truly besotted Chinese temperament strongly rubbed off here – something all at once reticent, stubborn or distraught – drowsily reticent Kaufmann’s handling of ‘Der Lenz ist da.’ Indication of distraction from the wonder of Nature all about an irony-laced Kaufmann potently picked up - with honeyed tone several places. Abbado calibrated the bright chatter of woodwinds against both lighter string and more foreboding sonorities with utmost simplicity.

Abbado set his interpretation of ‘Das Lied’ – what may have been allusive to Bruno Walter and/or Herbert von Karajan already – slightly more apart with ‘Abscheid.’ Sense of the fragility of Mahler’s sonorities over deep undertow remained mainstay here. More radical sounding still was, in specifically spacing everything, austerely a sense of vast empty space – without any massive slowdowns to achieve it.

Von Otter, with lighter voice than perhaps customary, while completely filling out her lines, meaning within, sang somewhat obbligato to overall orchestral line This held true, at ‘O sieh; Wie eine Silberbarke’ – spinning forth at once lighter tone and intense word painting. Berlin woodwinds emerged deeply expressive, such as lied-like oboe at ‘Der Bach singt’ – Von Otter extending, floating out continuing line thereof. Von Otter then found it more sublime to instead of overstating despondency with ‘Die mude Menschen’ to, more potently, merely suggest it.

Anticipating dry, utterly desolate rendering of ‘Die Welt schlaft ein’ was Abbado to evocatively highlight, set up in foreground various strands of horn and lower woodwind obbligato over muffled strings. Other sudden change of perspective, switching what may be in background with foreground, or sudden emergence in fore of something absent a moment earlier was but one subtle means Abbado employed to draw all he could out of the ‘Abscheid’ – Abbado also less the novice with Mahler’s music than was Karajan when he helped give the world the Berlin Philharmonic’s very first commercially issued rendition of ‘Das Lied.’. The greater emotional, psychological engagement Abbado strongly insinuated hardly held back any secrets. Certainty restating opening recitative (‘Es wehet kuhl’) concerning much grief was complete. Beseeching friend final time before parting became, by still lighter means, most intimately expressive – without breaking line.

Coming off Von Otter’s dry, but fully engaged ‘Lebenstrunkene Welt’, arrived abruptly recapitulatory cortege interlude forthrightly issuing forth ongoing tread. Reach for deeply chromatic intervals in lower instruments underneath, naturally compelled much despondency to the fore. A plaintively febrile Von Otter re-entered with ‘Er stieg von Pferd’, all then quietly distraught with ‘Er sprach.’ Even with tone light, sentiment expressed continued to be deep. Arising, emerging from desolate landscape was Von Otter’s febrile, Schubertian impassioned ‘Ich wandle auf der Heimat, with winds left to fill things out further. In a way Von Otter’s interpretation of Mahler’s ‘Das Lied’ resembled Stotijn’s – perhaps a little more Stotijn as she performed this for Metzmacher than the more tragically weighted performance in London under Bernard Haitink several months later.

Coda starting with ‘Die liebe Erde’ with Abbado restrained from having strings dig in too deep, preferring to more sublimely suggest their doing so instead – all lingering, from Von Otter included – quickly turned all febrile. Through obbligato in mandolin, celesta, all emerged radiant and warm – blues through overall perspective gradually turned up without gilding anything - Von Otter’s ‘Ewig’s’, all melting into soft down Berlin provided, still had allotted to them modest remainder of the way.

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