Mahler 3 & Singers at Six

Sechs geistliche Lieder [selection]
Sieben frühe Lieder – Die Nachtigall [arr. Gottwald]
Entflieht auf leichten Kähnen, Op.2
Ei, du Lütte
Vier Sätze einer Messe
Sieben Lieder [selection]
Rückert-Lieder – Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen [arr. Gottwald]

BBC Singers
David Hill

Symphony No.3

Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Symphony Chorus (women’s voices)
Choristers of Westminster Cathedral Choir

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 4 April, 2007
Venue: St Giles Cripplegate & Barbican Hall, London

The intimacy of St Giles Cripplegate was ideal for the “Singers at Six” recital, “Mahler’s Vienna”, which included settings by Mahler’s friends and admirers and, in the case of Richard Strauss, a rival.

Under Chief Conductor Designate David Hill the BBC Singers brought a programme that perhaps lacked for variety and which might have benefited from casting the net wider in terms of composers – instead, say, of the second group of Strauss pieces, examples (if existing) of a cappella settings by Reger, Zemlinsky and Schreker would have extended the coverage. Arrangements can of course be made – although the two included here by Clytus Gottwald disappointed: solo voice with either piano or orchestra (both the Berg and Mahler are so designated) here merged to a collective, the use of text distracting for what should be sound-only passages (why not vocalise these?) and thus confusing the harmony of the Berg and weakening the solitary utterance of the Mahler.

The three settings by Hugo Wolf – from dark to light via god-fearing – made an intense opening sequence; Webern’s Opus 2, his last work to use a key signature, displays a haunting harmonic freedom; and Schoenberg’s early setting made an interesting foil in skipping along merrily without an experimental note to be heard. Strauss’s concise settings of sections of the Mass text, written at the age of 13, are strictly achieved and seem to look back to Haydn while certainly showing promise. To follow with several more examples of ‘young Strauss’ (he was now 16) restricted the outreach of a nevertheless finely prepared recital.

Finely prepared too was the Mahler 3 that Jiří Bělohlávek led in the Barbican Hall. As one would expect his view of the music was lucid, thought-through and meticulously rehearsed. The majestic opening statement by the massed horns promised much, and while there was much to admire in terms of balance, blend, dynamics and attention to detail there was also a lack of pregnant anticipation and wildness partly down to I-dotting and T-crossing and also to overly-deliberate tempos (the first movement took a rather lumbering 38 minutes): the entrance of Summer was altogether too orderly. One surprising miscalculation, given Bělohlávek has such a refined ear, was the loudness of Helen Vollam’s (superbly played) trombone solo, which for the most part was stentorian and fearsomely voluminous; indeed trombones and trumpets (5 of each!) tended to obliterate other detail and the consolidated sound wasn’t so much ‘golden’ (as required for the symphony’s ultimate peroration) as strident.

Some ‘stage business’ was not well handled – an even longer pause was needed between the vast first movement (the symphony’s ‘Part One’) and the next five (‘Part Two’) and surely Jane Irwin (who had been singing Elliott Carter a few days earlier) should have entered at this point rather than just before she was due to sing (in the fourth movement) – someone’s bound to offer welcoming applause and cause disruption. (As it was one person’s five hand-claps were all that was heard.) Another questionable decision was to have the boys (dressed in cerise surpluses with scarlet cuffs) and ladies of the choir sitting down in what should be the silent attacca between the last movements. (Some conductors prefer the singers to resume seating only when the slow finale reaches a suitable forte.)

Of the six movements the most successful were the third and last. Otherwise the second movement Minuet was under-tempo, the fourth, which sets Nietzsche, lacked inwardness (partly due, pace the trombone, to Jane Irwin’s over-projection in an acoustic that doesn’t need any help) and the short fifth (text from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”) seemed complacent.

Yet the third, a sort of scherzo, was superbly realised – buoyant, witty and lightly touched, the posthorn solo (here played on a member of the trumpet family, probably a flugelhorn or a valved cornet) being perfectly distant and ‘high’ (from stage left and, by the sound of it, up the stairs), and the slow finale, bordering on the sentimental to begin with, enjoyed some beautiful string-playing (antiphonal violins were aurally pertinent throughout the evening, albeit a ninth double bass, this group left-positioned, would have been welcome at times) was rapt, contemplative and radiant.

  • BBC Singers’ recital recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3; Mahler broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 5 April at 7 p.m.
  • BBC Radio 3
  • Irwin/Carter

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