…but all shall be well, Op.10
Selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65
Matthias Goerne (baritone)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 24 January, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Ingo Metzmacher can be relied upon to programme repertoire in thoughtful or provocative contexts. So it was for this concert, which opened with Thomas Adès’s first work for full orchestra – inspired by religious mystic Julian of Norwich, as ’interpreted’ by T. S. Eliot. An appealing combination of coruscating harmonic descents opening into melodic spans, whose continuity is then undercut as the music’s expressive profile heightens in its later stages. At its 1994 premiere it was an entrée to Britten’s War Requiem; here it acted as an understated curtain-raiser to music of equally searching import.
For late 19th-century composers working in the Austro-German tradition, Des Knaben Wunderhorn was a literary counterpart to their own experiential domain. It permeates Mahler’s universe from the late 1880s to the early 1900s, underlying the evolution of his symphonic approach as well as being the source of his songs from that period. An unwieldy, though impressive sequence when performed complete (usually with male and female soloists), it makes sense to select according to voice-type. Matthias Goerne went further by including Der Schildwache Nachtlied, the imagined dialogue of a doomed sentry and his waiting girl – usually taken by two singers, and Urlicht, most often heard as the fourth movement of the Second Symphony and seemingly tailor-made for the mezzo register.
All credit to Goerne for presenting it so convincingly in baritonal terms. Moreover, the segueing into that piece from the barbed irony of Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, just as happens after the scherzo of the Second Symphony, whose third movement grew out of the latter song, was a most resourceful touch. Goerne’s warm, lyrical tone might not always project effortlessly over Mahler’s orchestral expanse, but his insight into the very different sensibilities of the marching song Revelge or the ribald humour of Lob des hohen Verstandes has few equals at present, while Metzmacher’s shading of finer detail in such miracles of orchestration as the ’military nocturne’ Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen or the execution song Der Tamboursg’sell was ’accompaniment’ of the highest order. This demanding sequence was sustained with ease.
Equally, if not more, demanding for orchestra and conductor is Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony – as powerful an evocation of cultural collapse, and the pathos that might be distilled from it, as has been rendered in purely musical terms. Metzmacher impressed, at his last LPO concert, with a Fourth Symphony, which located the work firmly and convincingly within the inter-war European mainstream. His account of No.8 was equally all of a piece in its harnessing of expressive depth to a formal plan which looks unwieldy as a score but which has (or should have!) complete inevitability in performance.
Metzmacher sustained the 25-minute opening Adagio with unobtrusive skill, bringing out the austerity of much of the writing and giving the developmental climax its head, without it degenerating into bombast. The gaunt cor anglais solo was expressively nuanced, and the equivocal close was rightly not dwelt upon – so maintaining an emotional trajectory across the movements to come. Of the two scherzos, both taken at a steady but never dragging tempo, the Allegretto had wit as well as vicious humour, with the ’war machine’ of the Allegro non troppo duly building up an unstoppable momentum – even though Metzmacher’s emphasising of the hairpin dynamics in the outer sections verged on the precious. Exploding balefully into view, the Largo passacaglia unfolded its stoic weariness without heaviness – attention given to the subtle timbral variety of each variation. The Allegretto then opened almost nonchalantly, and intensifying as the first movement’s climax is drawn irresistibly into the argument, before a close of subdued acceptance – lightly but movingly expounded here.
The LPO sustained the symphony’s 61 minutes with poise and commitment, reinforcing that this is a piece which should be draining, but never tiring to listen to. Several vacancies are likely to come up in London over the next few years, and if various orchestras’ management have yet to talk to Metzmacher’s agents, they should seriously consider doing so.