Neeme Järvi conducts a searing Kindertotenlieder and the London première of Mahler’s Retuschen version of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I won’t bore snow-story surfeited readers with the saga of my journey from a not-very-far suburb to the South Bank, but suffice to say that if ever a concert were worth a struggle, this was it.
Of course this was an uncompromising programme, but that’s the way I like them, and it featured as fine a performance of Mahler’s harrowing work as you are ever likely to hear, and a 9th of striking power under the baton of one of my favourite conductors.
Why do I admire Järvi so much? Austere and ascetic of mien, eschewing any flamboyance, he has a natural authority with the orchestra and interprets the music in an introspective and intimate style. That same kind of authority and introspection are evident in Matthias Goerne’s singing as he gave a peerless interpretation of Kindertotenlieder, his legato line a miracle of eloquence at ‘Freudenlicht’ in the first song and ‘Ihr wolltet mir eurem Leuchten sagen’ in the second.
“…the singing, oh, the singing! In the second song the repeated phrase ‘O Augen’ is sung with a compassionate intensity that tells us all we dare know about this kind of remorse” (Michael Kennedy on Fischer-Dieskau’s 1955 recording) and Goerne more than equalled this in his raw fervour and harrowing dramatic power. I have never before heard the line ‘O sei nicht bang, der Tag ist schön’ sung with such desperate pleading. You could not ask for more sensitive understanding of the words, or for more eloquent artistry, with the final ‘Sie ruh’n wie in der Mutter haus’ providing an embracing sense of consolation at the close. Järvi and the LPO gave him tenderly phrased support.
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is such an iconic work that it’s easy to imagine how some might feel about a ‘cover version’ of it, but Mahler’s reworkings, here garnered from his 1900 effort by David Pickett, are not so much lèse-majesté as an affectionate attempt at making the piece more ‘suitable’ for larger concert halls. Of course one might say that it’s already loud enough, and the added trumpets, woodwind and so on simply serve to make parts such as the close of the first movement sound somewhat brash, but no tinkering had been done with the music’s form, making it possible to experience not so much Beethoven heard via Mahler’s ears as the 9th heard as one expects to hear it, but with a fresh perspective.
It was the Andante and the ‘Ode to Joy’ which made the strongest impression. The LPO strings are sounding particularly lustrous these days, and the phrasing in the variations was both spacious and intimate. Those added trumpets may have created the impression that they were going to war with the singers, Handel-aria style, but in fact their ‘silver, snarling’ sound gave extra sheen to the last movement and added drama to the entry of the chorus.
The soloists were a distinguished bunch, although Peter Auty’s tenor is not quite heroic enough and Karen Cargill’s contribution seemed a little muted. Lisa Milne sang with her usual stylishness, and Peter Rose gave a commanding account of ‘O Freunde!’ Not a definitive 9th, perhaps, but Järvi’s shaping of the phrases and, especially, the playing of the percussion and woodwind sections ensured that whatever was lost in terms of architectural grandeur was more than compensated for by a renewed sense of the infinite variety of this symphony’s invention.