Royal Philharmonic Mahler

Des Knaben Wunderhorn [selection]: Revelge; Der Schildwache Nachtlied; Lied des Verfolgten im Turm; Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt; Lob des hohen Verstandes; Der Tambourg’sell
Symphony No.1 in D

James Rutherford (baritone)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 15 March, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The poetry contained within “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (The Youth’s Magic Horn) seem to have struck a resonant chord with Mahler – more in respect of nature and life than art. Some of the settings he re-used and combined into his symphonies. From this concert’s selection, for example, ‘St Anthony and the Fishes’ was used as the basis for the third movement of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony.

James Rutherford replaced the indisposed Detlef Roth in what was a rather mundane account of the songs. The first one deals with the horrors of war but there was no sense of condemnation of the skeletons that follow their drummer in a ghostly march. Indeed the point at which James Rutherford sang “Ich muß marschieren bis in Tod!” (I must march on to death!) was made to sound like a pleasing prospect! Perhaps Mahler was perceived as being ironic and having a twisted sense of black humour. ‘The Sentinel’s Nightsong’ is often performed by a pair of singers representing lovers. Hearing the replies sung by the Sentinel was incredibly moving and suggested how war can drive soldiers mad in their imagination. The ‘Song of the Prisoner in the Tower’ is meant as a proclamation of freedom by a condemned man. However, given that the themes of these last two songs are different, they sounded so alike. A lot more character and texture in the playing was required. Even the satirical ‘St Anthony and the Fishes’ could have done with a bit more of a bite from both orchestra and singer.

Rutherford certainly showed his comic side with ‘In Praise of High Intellect’ where a donkey is asked to judge a singing contest between a nightingale and a cuckoo. ‘The Drummer Boy’ should have been the highlight, as it began wonderfully, with the snare drum tapping imperceptibly yet with the most foreboding of emotions. The tragic tale of the drummer boy who has fallen out of favour and is to be executed was ready for an amazingly cathartic close but instead was utterly ruined by premature applause. The snare drum was beating out the final heartbeats and Daniele Gatti’s hands were still in the air when someone began to clap, setting others off. This sort of behaviour is despicable in a concert – if the conductor’s hands are in the air, this means the music has not finished.

Gatti conducted the symphony from memory and whilst the Royal Philharmonic may not always be as responsive as he seems to wish, his instincts are genuinely Mahlerian, which meant this performance was a satisfactory one. Mahler’s very detailed markings were followed faithfully no least the distinction between pp and ppp, and detail was always clear. The opening was taken very slowly, convincingly, and there were some very leisurely moments in the right places. The movement’s climax was superb and the accelerando dash to the end was splendidly executed.

The leisurely trio in the ‘Ländler’ second movement was a joy to listen to before the extremely solemn (mock) funeral March third movement. There were some spellbinding contributions from the soloists. The tranquil close of the movement gave way immediately to the exhilarating and wild opening of the finale. There was such drive to the opening that when calm shores arrived there was a collective release of breath. The brass section was consistently excellent and by the time of the invigorating close, the performance really did feel like a journey.

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