Piano Quartet movement in A minor
Das Lied von der Erde [performed in the version for chamber orchestra by Schoenberg, completed by Rainer Riehn]
Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor) & Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Members of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 27 February, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
Music on a small scale from two composers for whom biggest was best. Mahler embarked on his Piano Quartet when he was 16, and only this movement survives. Not surprisingly, it’s a pick-and-mix of romantic idioms, with a startling eruption of piano virtuosity that threatens to morph into Brahms’s third piano concerto and a surprise violin cadenza presaging later symphonic eloquence. Antonio Pappano, an excellent pianist, has a very attractive performing style – the way he engages with the piano is slightly reminiscent of the famous sketch of Brahms playing – non-showy, nonchalant, spirited and supremely musical. Vasko Vessilev produced a sweet and powerful violin sound that we would hear more of in the rest of the programme.
It’s usual for chamber orchestras to gain in intensity and immediacy what they can’t achieve in terms of man-power. Siegfried Idyll was eloquent but a bit dull. Music so familiar from ‘The Ring’ didn’t present that quiet thrill of minimalist rediscovery, and the performance as a whole just missed the sense of dreamy, understated rapture.
Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” fared much better. Schoenberg’s reduction (finished by Rainer Riehn to Schoenberg‘s specification) is scored for five each of strings and winds, harmonium, piano (plus a bit of subdued glitter from the celesta in the last song) and percussion. The use of harmonium is particularly effective, providing a discreet support in an otherwise exposed texture and far removed from the once-familiar reedy whining still to be heard in some churches. Inevitably, you miss Mahler’s beautifully realised perspectives, but the intimacy of the reduced scoring really draws you in, especially when as well played as here, with some ravishing string solos and powerfully expressive wind playing. The only moment when the orchestration faltered was in the closing stanza of the last setting, the ‘Abschied’ (Farewell) where some overwritten piano accompaniment introduced a note of Hollywood.
The sense of intimacy was reinforced by having two male soloists (as allowed for Mahler) rather than the more usual tenor and mezzo. The latter possibly gives ‘Das Lied’ a more universal, objective spirituality, but with two men you get something approaching a sense of dialogue that can be very affecting – as was the case here – and, after all, the poems are ‘spoken’ by men. Klaus Florian Vogt was in full and thrilling Heldentenor mode for the opening ‘Drinking Song‘, tearing into the delirious, high-lying music with a will. He was full of charm and nostalgia in ‘Of Youth’ and delivered ‘The Drunkard in Spring’ with stirring abandon – this is a work that positively encourages binge drinking. Vogt was terrific, his singing passionate and full of the life that is winding to a close. Thomas Hampson was more detached, but found a secret inwardness for the opening of ‘The Solitary One in Autumn’ and a sense of wonder in ‘Of beauty’ – “were we really like that?”, he seems to sing. His fine-grained, subtly inflected voice, fantastic musicianship and easy high-range worked miracles in the tender, regretful beauties of ‘The Farewell’, with a powerfully played interlude that made the music sound effortlessly modern.
It was a great performance of this remarkable work, beautifully paced by Pappano, who gave the two singers space for a touch of tenderly drawn drama that connected powerfully with the audience. Like “King Lear”, “Das Lied von der Erde” is art to be approached with deference by the not-so-young.