Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia Orchestra / Maazel @ Royal Festival Hall, London

5 May 2011

Southbank Centre

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

It was a curious decision to have a mezzo and a baritone performing six songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn; in fact, I could not work out why Matthias Goerne could not manage them all himself, since the only valid point for having male and female soloists is to allow the songs to become duets, which works well for those which are already made up of dialogues. However, here it was a straight division: she sang three whilst he sat and fidgeted about, then he sang three whilst she sat and either was or pretended to be enraptured.

If this was a lesson in the difference between a very good and a great singer, then it was a success, even if it was a lesson some of us did not need to learn. Sarah Connolly is indeed a very good singer, with a rich, vibrant voice and some facility with words, even though her German could be more incisive and exact (Herzallerliebe instead of Herzallerliebste, for example). She sang the songs beautifully, with a little too much vibrato at times, shaping the phrases with skill yet never really seeming to get inside the music.

The moment Goerne uttered the words ‘O Röschen rot’! we were in a different world, that of almost unbearable intensity, a world in which, as Wordsworth puts it, sensations are “felt in the blood, / And felt along the heart”. There is no other living singer who can simultaneously enrapture with his tone and expression, and astonish with his breath control, and he gave an astounding example of this at the close of ‘Urlicht’ with ‘das ewig selig Leben’. His performance of’ Revelge’ was the most searingly dramatic I’ve heard, the crucial line ‘ein Schrecken schlägt den Feind’ only just short of savagery.

My goodness, isn’t Mahler’s Fifth long? Aaron Copland said that the difference between Beethoven and Mahler was between watching a great man walk down the street and watching a great actor playing the part of a great man walking down the street, and in this performance somehow brought that view into sharp focus. Mahler’s sufferings are all displayed with theatrical skill in the supposedly tragic first movement, but Maazel’s direction seemed to emphasize the work’s stark contrasts to more advantage.

I’ve always considered Lorin Maazel to be the kind of conductor who rules the orchestra with an iron grip, and he certainly showed this here in the taut phrasing and daringly elongated movements, but I’m not so sure that the Philharmonia really needs this at the moment – ten years ago, maybe. There was some great playing to savour, especially from the woodwind and strings, but it was the Adagietto which most captivated: hardly surprising, given that it is in essence a ‘Lied ohne Worte’ and it is in song that Mahler’s true greatness lies.

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

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