Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LPO/Eschenbach @ Royal Festival Hall, London

25 February 2011

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

Christoph Eschenbach conducted Mahers early song cycle Song of a Wayfarer and the colossal 9th Symphony with control and passion, perhaps only missing a flicker of desperation.

The first song of Wayfarer was dangerously slow and strangely restrained, with Christopher Maltman delivering Mahlers text with the score in front of him, which he happily abandoned as the performance warmed up. Into the second song the story was declaimed like a tale told in a pub, perfect for this melancholic cycle, as the narrator has sudden bursts of optimism knocking along with drunken plunges into half-drunken woe and self-pity.

Explosive daggers dart from the orchestra as the lamenting hero sings that blonde hair waving in the wind, beautifully dovetailed into gorgeous despair during the line eternal sorrow and grief are mine making it clear that for Mahler grief is as beautiful as joy.

Any description of the 9th Symphony is likely to veer towards pomposity, since it is such a fantastically overblown work, seeming to describe life and death and the deepest, darkest stirrings of human feeling what some people call ‘spirituality’.

Though unbearably beautiful and aching, the beginning of the symphony seemed matter-of-fact under Eschenbach, who at times didnt quite acknowledge the meaning or momentum of certain passages. This is music that makes sense when delivered with anxiety and neurotic energy, which was a little lacking in this performance. But that is nit-picking this was still fantastic music-making the trumpet section was full of character, strings were warm and full, percussion bang-on. Something fearful and reckless was missing, but there was so much more, too, in the vivid nature of the more piquant music.

After so much obstinate, banal, indulgent music, deliberately piled on thick by Mahler (the work is close to 90 minutes long), the feeling of occasionally plummeting unexpectedly into swamps of emotion was thrilling, whipped up by Eschenbach as he flew into a theatrical flurry in the Lndler and Burleske movements. Later, as a musical coal falls out of the fire and lights up the room, it becomes clear that the train of thought had wandered into fruitless plains, but Mahler and Eschenbach were back on the right path., both driving and driven.

Almost exactly corresponding to Keats Ode to a Nightingale Darkling I listen; and, for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death as well as Becketts resigned You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on, Mahler drags out and prolongs the last movement until he has to admit defeat, and the strands of music and life are softly, painfully let go.

Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk

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