Metamorphosen – Study for 23 solo strings
Das Lied von der Erde
Simon O’Neill (tenor) & Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 17 December, 2017
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The Simon Rattle/LSO season continued with a second appearance of this Strauss and Mahler programme focussing on late works which, composed almost a half-century apart, convey typically unequivocal responses to the mingling of the personal and universal.
Metamorphosen (1945) has featured in numerous Rattle concerts, though his current approach (in stage terms at least) seems intent on invoking those “ritualizations” of the Bach Passions as seen in Berlin and London. Thus, violinists and viola-players stood at the left and right, with cellists seated to the right and bassists at left-rear – leaving a baton-less Rattle at the centre for what was a performance not so much directed as guided with a wide range of visual gestures and implorations. What resulted was a reading that for all its technical security and its formal cohesion, the music unfolding as a fluid continuum of string sonority, evinced relatively little expressive range in building toward ecstatic yearning then back to stoic regret. Whether the collapse of German culture or an overtly personal fallibility was commemorated here was not evident from the music alone; while the acoustically flattened-out sound meant there was little ranging of dynamics such as ensured inertness of feeling. One headed into the interval admiring if uninvolved.
Which was fortunately not the case with Das Lied von der Erde (1909). Not everyone will approve of Rattle’s continued opting for a baritone rather than alto soloist in the even-numbers movements (the composer gave this as a secondary alternative that Bruno Walter, who conducted the posthumous premiere, tried out just once) though the singers were undeniably contrasted. Simon O’Neill was admittedly not ideal in the tenor movements – his steely and tensile tone surmounting the exacting tessitura but, with its Loge-like detachment, narrowing the wide mood-swings of ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’, then eschewing the elegant whimsy of ‘Von der Jugend’, and for all that the veering between jollity and pathos in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ was vividly rendered through to those uproarious final bars.
Issues of vocal register aside, Christian Gerhaher’s contribution was undeniably impressive as he searched out the barely restrained anguish of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ then brought a knowing intimacy to ‘Von der Schönheit’. He was no less probing across the extended span of ‘Der Abschied’, in which his unsparing articulation of phrase and confiding intimacy were heard to mesmeric effect. Making resourceful use of the acoustic, notably with his placing of double basses in a line across the rear of the stage, Rattle had the measure of those unearthly timbres and instrumental solos in which this music abounds – not least in a tellingly weightless account of the central interlude, with a coda the more affecting given the degree to which Gerhaher’s murmured “ewig” enfolded into the instrumental timbres to create its own, indivisible union.
Not a flawless reading (would that were possible!), but a considered and absorbing one where Rattle’s Mahler credentials were persuasively restated. If he could sacrifice a degree of micro-management for a comparable spontaneity, Rattle’s music-making would surely stand to benefit.