BBCSO Concert – 30th May

Verklärte Nacht
Das Lied von der Erde

Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano)
Keith Lewis (tenor)

BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohlavek

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 30 May, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

No explanation was given for the change of programme – Schoenberg’s Variations Op.31 having originally been scheduled – but this interesting coupling was poorly attended. The stalls were less than full, and many left after the interval.

Schoenberg’s first instruction in the score of Verklärte Nacht is ’very soft’. Unfortunately, this performance began ’rather loud’ and it was the absence of truly hushed playing which was a problem throughout the evening. I had never imagined the names of Elgar and Schoenberg being coupled together, but this performance felt too English for comfort. Instead of being transcendental and timeless, the strings of the BBCSO gave an altogether too down-to-earth rendition of music that needs to feel as if it is coming from somewhere else. “Ich fühle Luft vom anderem Planeten” – “I feel the air of another planet” is a phrase (by Stefan George) set by Schoenberg in his String Quartet No. 2, and which is equally applicable to Verklärte Nacht. Such air was decidedly absent here, notwithstanding some excellent solo playing and obvious care for texture and balance from the conductor.

However, the decision to place the violas on the right of the platform, whilst enabling them to be heard with unusual clarity, made it difficult for the second violins to be properly audible. The double basses placed at the back of the ensemble ensured that their contribution was particularly telling.Keith Lewis is an intelligent and musical singer, but it has to besaid that he is over-parted in two of the tenor’s three songs in Das Lied von der Erde. Anyone expecting the visceral andlacerating approach of, say, Bernstein and René Kollo in the first song would have been severely disappointed. Belohlavek had to keep the orchestra very much ’down’ during this and ’Der Trunkene im Frühling’ to enable the singer to be audible. Lewis’s essentially Mozartian-scale voice was heard to better effect in ’Von der Jugend’ where a lighter touch from conductor and orchestra would have been desirable.

By contrast, Petra Lang was well-neigh ideal in the mezzo’s part, which has been so memorably rendered by artists of the calibre of Kathleen Ferrier and Christa Ludwig. Her essentially dark-hued voice and excellent diction ensured that Mahler’s penetrating settings of Hans Bethge’s free translations of Chinese poetry made their full effect – the final cries of ’Ewig’ having the requisite sense of desolation yet also consolation. In this last movement, the orchestra’s woodwind solos were most expressively played and important colouring from harps, mandolin and celesta made their points without being intrusive.

Belohlavek is evidently a careful and scrupulous musician – perhaps somewhat in the old Kappelmeister tradition – and his love of detail and attentive balancing certainly ensured that Mahler’s poignant ’farewell’, which is at the core of Das Lied, was the highlight of the evening.

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