Vier Letzte Lieder
Christine Schäfer (soprano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 5 May, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Parting is so sweet – so they say, though I have never found it so myself. This concert concerned musical leave-taking, comprising both Strauss’s and Mahler’s last completed works (Mahler drafted a Symphony No.10) – in Strauss’s case a hymn to the soprano voice and in Mahler’s to life itself and to the pain of leaving it.
Coming so soon after Haitink’s memorable Vienna Philharmonic Mahler 9, another one might have been an anticlimax. In fact, Gatti’s performance had real (and in some instances complementary) virtues, offering something valid and affecting.
The concert opened with Christine Schäfer in the Four Last Songs, played in the published order (the first performance, in London, over fifty years ago had the middle two songs change places. Schäfer has the near-ideal voice for this music, one soaring effortlessly in the closing stanza of Beim Schlafengehn and reminding of Lisa Della Casa (a similarly non-heavyweight soprano) who made the Songs’ first recording, with Karl Böhm.
In the opening Frühling, Gatti did Schäfer few favours, the orchestra consistently too thick-textured and loud for his silver-toned soloist. Thereafter things improved dramatically, especially in the magically soft ending of September and the superbly sensitive violin solo of Clio Gould, which rounded off Im Abendrot as the liberated soul floats free.
The symphony was at the opposite pole to Haitink’s traversal. Conducting from memory – and having clearly internalised every inch of the score – Gatti’s was an interpretation likely to divide opinion sharply. It would be easy to dismiss it as over-heated, histrionic, and even blatant – the heavy brass persistent offenders in this respect. However, it also hung together, the ear led naturally as if listening to a story well told. Equally important was the pleasure of hearing an orchestra giving its all. There was some remarkably affecting string-playing in the finale; not simply in sheer weight of sound or intensity, but in the different tone found for the withdrawal from the world, music which can sound interminable but here holding us to the very last note.
In the first two movements tempos were often slow, sometimes too much so such in the passage marked ‘Like a funeral’ and its immediate aftermath, but for the most part Gatti made a convincing case for his choices. More restraint along the way would have thrown the movement’s real climaxes into sharper relief. The Rondo-Burleske third movement lived dangerously and packed a mighty punch, especially its final stretto (even if the first trumpet’s playing in the sentimental passage at the movement’s core was deserving of leave of absence). A particular word of praise for the string principals – Clio Gould’s many solos were played with a complete lack of ego and contributed hugely, as did Tim Gill’s tiny, eloquent but crucially ppp solo before the finale’s final paragraph; and Andrew Williams’s characterful viola in the second movement Ländler was of note. There was also some notably fine quiet playing from the principal bassoon, and the contrabassoon, in their all-important passages in the finale.
At the work’s close the words of that greatest of Mahler’s songs, to Rückert’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” sprang to mind: “I am dead to the bustle of the world and repose in a tranquil realm, I live alone in my heaven”.