New York Philharmonic/Colin Davis with Dorothea Röschmann & Ian Bostridge [Beethoven & Des Knaben Wunderhorn]

Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Des Knaben Wunderhorn [twelve selections; sung in German with English surtitles]

Dorothea Röschmann (soprano) & Ian Bostridge (tenor)

New York Philharmonic
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 2 December, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Sir Colin Davis. Photograph: Alberto Venzago / LSOThis was the first of two programmes led by Sir Colin Davis during his current two-week visit to the New York Philharmonic. It paired Beethoven’s Second Symphony with Mahler’s orchestral version of his setting of twelve poems from the collection “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (The Youth’s Magic Horn) with Dorothea Röschmann and Ian Bostridge as the soloists, part of a season-long “Focus on Mahler”, simultaneously commemorating the 150th-anniversary of Mahler’s birth and the 100th-anniversary of his death and final season as the Philharmonic’s music director.

Colin Davis gave Beethoven’s Second Symphony a reading that was at once delicate and muscular, remaining connected to its roots in the classicism of Mozart and Haydn, yet anticipating the revolutionary innovations that would soon burst forth fully in the ‘Eroica’. This was by and large a sunny performance, with little evidence that it had been composed by a depressed Beethoven who had just come to realize that his growing deafness was incurable – as he explained in his contemporaneously written “Heiligenstadt Testament”. It was also an unapologetically ‘modern’ performance, which did not attempt to emulate ‘period’-performance practises. The Philharmonic strings were lyrical and precisely in unison, Beethoven’s characteristic woodwind timbres emerged perfectly, and the timpani, horns and trumpets provided rhythmic impulse and drama without overshadowing the rest of the orchestra.

In the opening Adagio molto, Davis built up suspense leading into the Allegro con brio, which surged ahead briskly, with trenchant attacks and a high energy level, so that observing the exposition repeat did not cause the music to drag. In the extended coda, one could sense more keenly than in the exposition and development sections a departure from the classical symphony tradition. In the Larghetto, the Philharmonic’s strings made the lyrical principal theme – one of Beethoven’s loveliest creations – sing out rapturously, and the scherzo was appropriately jocose, with winds and strings alternating in the trio to provide contrast. Davis sustained a high degree of energy in the finale, in which fine playing on cellos, flute, bassoon and timpani stood out. By the symphony’s end, we had been transported to the threshold of a new musical era.

Mahler composed orchestral settings for fifteen of his twenty-four songs based on poems from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”. Of the twelve that were performed here, five were sung as duets. Mahler’s orchestrations, performed brilliantly by Sir Colin and the Philharmonic, add a marvellous dimension to the songs, bringing to life the horrors of war, the gentleness of love and the humour to be found in so many aspects of life.

Dorothea Röschmann. Photgoraph: Jim RaketeDorothea Röschmann (in her NY Philharmonic debut) was in top form, silken-voiced and fully immersed in the character portrayed in each song, but Bostridge seemed somewhat indisposed, although he did his best to hold his own, both against whatever may have been ailing him and the powerful orchestral forces that Mahler’s score arrayed behind him. Davis did, however, take care to keep the orchestra’s volume under control, particularly in the last few songs, which aided both singers immensely.

Röschmann demonstrated what an extraordinary communicator she is, using voice, facial expression and body language to ‘sell’ each song. She sang gravely of a starving child in ‘Das irdische Leben’ (The Earthly Life), humorously in ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’ (Who Thought Up this Little Song?), and charmingly in ‘Rheinlegendchen’ (Rhine Legend). ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’ (Praise from an Advanced Intellect), in which a jackass judges a singing contest between a cuckoo and a nightingale, is a perennial favourite, and it proved so again in Röschmann’s delightful rendering, ending with a loud ‘Ija!’ (Hee-haw!).

Ian Bostridge. Photograph: Simon FowlerIn ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’ (The Sentinel’s Night Song) and ‘Trost im Unglück’ (Solace in Misfortune) and ‘Lied des Verfolgten im Turm’ (Song of the Persecuted in the Tower), Bostridge had the unenviable task of portraying a soldier or prisoner and almost having to shout to be heard over a loud, military-themed orchestral accompaniment that would then soften for each of Röschmann’s passages as the girl left behind. These songs – at least in their orchestrated versions – are really not ideal for Bostridge’s light, lyric tenor voice, but are better suited for a Heldentenor or a baritone.

Bostridge’s voice came through strongly, however, in ’Revelge’ (Reveille), another song with a military theme, and he was delightfully humorous in ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt!’ (St Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes) and in duet with Röschmann in ‘Verlorne Müh’ (Labour Lost). He was at his best, however, in ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’ as a condemned drummer-boy awaiting execution. Following a heart-rending lament from the cor anglais, his cry of “Gute Nacht!” was perhaps the most emotion-laden moment of the performance.

Röschmann and Bostridge brought the evening to a touching conclusion in ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ (Where the Beautiful Trumpets Blow), another duet between a doomed (and in this case already dead) soldier and his sweetheart, but one of a very different character from those sung earlier. Here the orchestral accompaniment was much gentler, with the flute prominent and the concluding trumpet fanfares played softly, and Bostridge’s voice matching Röschmann’s in sweetness.

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