She may not have been on stage for much more than ten minutes at a time, but the soprano Christine Schaefer managed to dominate this intriguing programme.
For the second time this season the Proms were pairing the music of Alban Berg with that of his mentor, Gustav Mahler. Once again it made logical sense, with both chosen works – Berg’s Lulu-Suite and Mahler’s fourth symphony – featuring critical soprano roles, if fleetingly glimpsed.
Schaefer made a stunning impact when entering for Lulu’s Song, the third ‘number’ of the suite, and took over immediately. The role of Lulu has been incontrovertibly linked with her ever since the successful Glyndebourne production of 1996, which also visited the Albert Hall, and she revisited its sensuous yet warped sound world. Lulu’s encounter with Jack the Ripper was terrifying in its climactic hammer blow, the soprano choosing her moment perfectly to appear at the back of the stage like an apparition in a glittering black dress, eerily taking on the part of Lulu’s lesbian admirer to mourn her passing. Daniele Gatti marshalled his Royal Philharmonic troops through this heady score; not quite exploring the full range of emotions but providing admirable backing for Schaefer.
Far more life affirming was the last of Mahler’s three Wunderhorn symphonies, a moment where the composer looks backward towards Haydn and Schubert as well as looking toward his own later symphonies. Technically the orchestra were excellent, and Gatti enjoyed the rustlings of nature in the first movement, manipulating the return of the main theme to great effect. If the cello placing meant they were slightly underpowered in the second subject, the violins passionately atoned later on. Leader Clio Gould. then brought a chilling edge to her violin playing for the Scherzo, but over projected her open strings a little too much for my taste. Time stood still in the serene third movement, Gatti reluctant to bring out too much of the dark side, and the feeling was that Mahler’s vision of heaven towards the close could have been more exultant.
At which point Schaefer rose for the third time of the night, in her third costume – a tomboyish affair that reflected the childlike simplicity of the setting. She brought a wonderful calm to the final verse, the child abiding in heaven, and as the orchestra ebbed away Gatti allowed a minute to elapse before we could applaud. This was as important as what had gone before, a most fitting and moving conclusion.