London Philharmonic/Eschenbach [Mahler Symphony 9 … Christopher Maltman sings Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen]

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Symphony No.9

Christopher Maltman (baritone)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 February, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Christoph Eschenbach. Photograph: Eric BrissaudNot the largest house for a Mahler concert if certainly a well-attended one, but there’s a lot of him around: Simon Rattle and the Berliners had just played the Third in this hall and there’s two performances of the Ninth next week across the river from Valery Gergiev and the LSO.

From the London Philharmonic we had a brief first half (shorter than the ensuing interval) which found Christopher Maltman in lustrous voice and then Christoph Eschenbach conducted an epic account of Symphony 9. This programme of early and late Mahler – the symphony was his last completed work (Symphony 10 was finished A-to-Z but was left with many holes along the way) – opened with “Songs of a Wayfarer”, a vocal-cycle yielding thematic material for Mahler’s First Symphony. The poise of the LPO’s playing in passages that can seem rushed boded well, such anticipation enhanced by Maltman’s charismatic singing, the baritone extracting every ounce of emotion and mood in the most innate way, his word-pointing and -painting constantly suggestive and sitting well within the sympathetic and detailed accompaniment. (It was though a surprise that he needed the score.) Maltman’s voice embraced the listener, and if the orchestra was rather too restrained for the third song (“I have a gleaming knife … O woe! It cuts so deep…”), and in which timpanist Christopher Thomas’s hand-stopping of notes was messy enough to produce derivative sounds (he was second timpanist in the symphony), then such moderation didn’t stop Maltman producing a stentorian cry for redemption, and he was then wonderfully resigned and tender in the final number (“My sweetheart’s two blue eyes…”).

Conducting from memory, Eschenbach led a 93-minute account of the Ninth Symphony, the outer movements each clocking in at 32 minutes – the first on a par with such as Giulini and Maazel, the finale very possibly setting a world record. It would have been an even longer performance but for Eschenbach taking the third-movement ‘Rondo-Burleske’ at a blistering pace – yet however brilliantly played, and for all the rapture of the central section, there was a lack of acerbity, defiance and, come the close, nowhere to go with the out-letting increase in speed – it was already at its fastest. The other middle movement, a series of Ländler, lacked rusticity, being too urbane and without sufficient contrasts (save for one lurch forward at an unexpected point, and which failed to convince).

What must be stressed is the exceptional playing of the LPO and the detailed preparation the symphony had received. Eschenbach’s approach to the first movement was somewhat dispassionate. The opening was a funeral dirge, valedictory from the off (which given Mahler knew he had another symphony in him is not entirely apposite), Adagio rather than Andante and not particularly ‘comodo’ (accommodating), the music proceeding inflexibly. Yet, it must be further stressed that this was an absorbing performance, very personal on Eschenbach’s part, a Modernist view of the music rather than a Romantic one, the scoring, however complex and layered, made wonderfully lucid – Mahler revealed as a master contrapuntalist – and the numerous passages where Second Violins are even more important than Firsts (Eschenbach disposing them antiphonally) found the supposed less-important fiddles to be the equal of their ‘seniors’ in terms of volume and fullness of tone.

Indeed impeccable balance and superb playing were this performance’s hallmarks, the space given to the outer movements compelling in itself, especially so in the finale, which was mesmerising in Eschenbach and the LPO’s control of every note, each of which were given full value as part of an undeviating traversal that contrasted earthy stoicism with the calling from another place – and from there to transcendentalism and then fading to nothingness. The one aural black-spot was the amount of coughing from the audience – no matter how quiet or fragile the music there was someone to hack into it. It is perfectly possible not to cough no matter how much you want to – those that didn’t hold back or even try and subdue their unwanted interruption must be considered ignorant and selfish, with no regard for the music, performers or fellow concert-goers. The LPO and Eschenbach deserved better for their dedicated and painstaking performance, as did those of us who appreciated the individuality and import of the conductor’s conception. At least there was a decent silence before enthusiastic applause broke out.

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