Opera and Classical Reviews

Members of the London Philharmonic/Elder @ Wigmore Hall, London

9 January 2009


Wigmore Hall’s platform could barely contain musicians, piano, conductor and soloists for a performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

The cramped conditions in no way hindered a stunning performance of this glorious work, though, heard here in the Schoenberg reduction.

The Viennese master began the arrangement in 1921 but didn’t actually finish it and we have Rainer Riehn to thank for the completion in 1983, a scholarly and faithful realisation. Despite the intervention of another, Schoenberg haunts every note, the stark orchestrations rendering Mahler’s harmonies even more alarming than usual.

If there is some loss of tenderness, without the huge orchestral sweeps of the original, much is gained from the extra colours and textures of what can sound like a series of virtuoso solo performances. Most instruments in the ensemble stand out at various times, with the score’s “oriental” sounds emphasised and greater rhythmic intensity than we’re used to hearing in the work.

Mark Elder brought characteristic attack to the opening song. A slight hiatus followed Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, as cellist Susanne Beer had to re-string her instrument, such was the exuberance of the performance.

The tenor role is not exactly thankless but the lurching tipsiness of the first and fifth songs carries a danger of shrieking in the high lines and the alto part is far more memorable. While Paul Nilon acquitted himself well, in Alice Coote we have an almost perfect Mahler voice. It’s powerful, beautiful, nuanced and throbbing with intensity.

Coote seems to get better and better and this was an immaculate performance, breathless and carried away in the pounding horses of Von der Schnheit and heartbreaking in the resignation and acceptance of the final “Ewig… ewig”.

If only one work of Mahler’s were to survive, surely it should be this and if only one movement, the massive final song, Der Abschied, would be enough to secure his reputation as the most searching and moving of composers. This spiky chamber version will never replace the lush gorgeousness of the original version but it is a fascinating and differently beautiful one that is vital for any lover of the composer.

In the briefest of first halves, the conductorless members of the LPO, gave a swelling account of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, in the chamber version Cosima will have heard on Christmas Day 1870. If there’s something of the epic in a matchbox in this distillation of themes from the third part of The Ring, it’s even more the case in the original 13-piece arrangement.

As with the Mahler, it’s the lack of strings (here just a quintet) that is most noticeable but the vibrancy of Siegfried’s horn and the mellifluous woodbird’s call were as ear-catching as ever.



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