LSO/Segerstam Christine Brewer [Four Last Songs … Death and Transfiguration]

Symphony No.10 – Adagio
Vier letzte Lieder
Tod und Verklärung, Op.24

Christine Brewer (soprano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Leif Segerstam

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 January, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Leif SegerstamA potential problem with programming three works of similar length is where to place the interval. Given there is a quotation from Death and Transfiguration in “Four Last Songs”, it might have been an idea to have these two works side by side and leave the Adagio (opening movement) from Mahler’s unfinished (if now performable) Tenth Symphony to stand alone. As things turned out, the performance of this torso (which is more or less ‘total Mahler’) that Leif Segerstam conducted (he was replacing Donald Runnicles who withdrew a while ago for “family reasons”) was an absorbing and draining experience; an interval after it would have been timely.

Segerstam’s success was that he conducted a real Adagio, at a tempo that allowed transitions and acerbic dance-like measures to emerge naturally (statistically this was a 31-minute traversal – the average is about 24), the movement taken in a single breath and begun with the violas playing carefully and beautifully the opening statement. Segerstam – for all his vividly demonstrative gestures – is very certain as to what he wants; he charted the Adagio’s course with certainty – with solemnity yet still questioning, resigned rather than poignant, but not without burdened edge. Maybe the big, nine-note dissonant climax was slightly underplayed, yet its purging effect was tangible as the music moved into ethereal climes to close an effective ‘symphony in one movement’.

Christine Brewer is very closely associated (too much so?) with Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs”; performances from her are certainly regular (she was in Liverpool last week with the cycle and she opened last year’s BBC Proms with a performance, albeit as a last-minute stand-in for Karita Matilla).

Christine Brewer. Photograph: Christian SteinerSome breathing and phrasal difficulties affected Brewer’s opening contribution, but she soon settled and gave a very experienced rendition – just a little too run-in – soaring as required and benefiting from the expressive corners that Segerstam opened up while keeping the music on a gentle flow. There was nothing overly-languid here; Timothy Jones’s horn solo at the close of ‘September’ was particularly affecting, as was Deborah Nemtanu’s quietly rapturous violin-playing during ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ (Going to sleep). Brewer’s command of dynamics on long-held notes was enviable and she found a good balance between the public and private nature of Strauss’s response to the texts; in the final song – ‘Im Abendrot’ (At Dusk), a sense of withdrawal was palpable, ‘sunset’ suggested without it being milked.

Yet, although Brewer is very possibly an ideal ‘Strauss soprano’ (and was afforded such an ovation on this occasion), it is possible to perform this music with a beguiling intimacy that explores other aspects beyond the well-worn, such as Solveig Kringelborn achieved with Sir Charles Mackerras; memorable indeed.

In Death and Transfiguration, the conductor once again gave the music time, the opening heavy in despair; Segerstam is a weaver of magic spells. This was a contrasted account, lamenting and fevered, the LSO responsive to all moods, the conductor highlighting detail and painting vivid pictures. If the transfiguration itself was more thunderous than transcendental, we had nonetheless moved to ‘somewhere else’.

My colleague Kenneth Carter was bowled over by Segerstam’s (belated) debut with the LSO last year; although he returned here to ‘save the show’, it seems that he and the LSO have developed an excellent rapport, one that will hopefully continue into future seasons.

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