Des Knaben Wunderhorn [selections: Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen; Rheinlegendchen; Das irdische Leben; Urlicht; Revelge; Der Tamboursg’sell]
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) & Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Philharmonia Orchestra – Maazel: Mahler Cycle 2011 [5/10 … Symphony 5 … Sarah Connolly & Matthias Goerne sing Des Knaben Wunderhorn]
Thursday, May 05, 2011 Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Peter Reed
Six songs from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”, then the Fifth Symphony, in which the creative impulse of the young Mahler was itself becoming a tool of his more adult subconscious – at least, that’s how it seemed in the searching performances by Sarah Connolly (the first three songs) and Matthias Goerne (the second three). In terms of performance style, the gulf between the two singers could not have been wider. Connolly drew the characters of ‘Where the fair trumpets sound’ and ‘Earthly life’ with the merest inflection of tone and tilt of the head, the sublime intensity of her voice an additional mystery. Goerne, however, gave the mini-dramas of ‘Reveille’ and ‘The drummer boy’ an almost “Wozzeck”-like harshness and abandon. It was visceral, tortured and confrontational, and made us aware of the singer more than anything else, but then you could hear the validity of his approach in the miraculous control of ‘Primal Light’, taken dangerously slow and stretching his multi-layered voice to extremes.
A drummer-boy going to his execution, dead soldiers, a starving child, a ghostly lover – all grist to the mill of the funeral march first-movement of the Fifth Symphony. Lorin Maazel took Mahler’s ‘measured tread’ direction to heart in a reading of considerable weight, although he undermined its impact with some fussily articulated phrasing. The glances back to the shades of Wunderhorn-land were hinted at with a light hand, but it was the blank violence of this funeral march, so different from the heroism in the ‘Resurrection’, that won the day. Maazel kept to a similar deliberate tempo for the second movement, so the ‘greatest vehemence’ Mahler calls for lacked the vital edge of spontaneity that can make this strange reverse-image so disturbing. He was scrupulous in his attention to detail, and the Philharmonia Orchestra’s playing was masterly, but those famously distracted glimpses of hope didn’t get their proper context. Even so, the mood-switch to the scherzo was the pivotal moment it should be, and Maazel’s binding together of its many elements made this movement, rather than the Adagietto, the point of the symphony. The latter, taken really slowly, just about kept on the rails, but for all the beauty of sound, it was too stretched, almost to the point of caricature. The finale brimmed over with confidence – a distant relation to the “Mastersingers” Prelude – and was played with defiant virtuosity.
The 81-year-old Maazel, a composer/conductor, is a superb virtuoso, who knows exactly how to achieve his ends, and his style of showmanship is very disarming. I do wonder, though, how this symphony’s hectic diversity would have fared without the superlative playing of the Philharmonia, currently in a league of its own.