The Rest is Noise – London Philharmonic/Mark Elder – Webern, Schoenberg & Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with Lilli Paasikivi & Paul Groves

Im Sommerwind
Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16 [Original Version]
Das Lied von der Erde [‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’, “orch.” Colin Matthews]

Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano) & Paul Groves (tenor)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 23 January, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Sir Mark Elder. Photograph: Clive Barda/ArenapalWhen Gustav Mahler died, on 18 May 1911, he had not heard the Symphony (composed between those numbered Eight and Nine) that he entitled Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), but it was completely ‘signed off’. Some feel that in the first movement, ‘The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow’, Mahler overdid the dynamics and created a near-impossible task for the tenor to both get through the taxing vocal writing and compete with the orchestra. First of all let us remember that whatever the loudest of the markings in Mahler’s score, orchestras 100 years ago could not have delivered the sort of volume all too apparent today. So, all a conductor has to do is ask the players to drop an f but without denuding the conflict between tenor and orchestra that Mahler surely intended. Mahler may well have changed other composers’ scores and revised his own, and he seems to have indicated, albeit through Otto Klemperer’s recall, that if something was felt to be not right in his music, then it should be changed. However, in my opinion, Mahler knew exactly what he was after in this surging opening movement; and all that is needed is for a conductor to be ‘historically informed’. Mark Elder certainly has this awareness, so it’s ironic that he should seek changes from a third party to revise what Mahler wrote, even allowing that Mahler himself might have done so.

Paul Groves. Photograph: www.opus3artists.comThe programme rather overdid the credit of “orch.” for what Colin Matthews has done (already familiar to Hallé audiences and BBC Radio 3 listeners). It’s more of a revision of the scoring, which Matthews has effected with skill, sensitivity and ‘from the inside’. Nevertheless, I maintain that it is unnecessary and that Mahler’s notation should be trusted; just be aware of the dynamic range then and now. Certainly, the great Mahler conductors of the past in their recordings of Das Lied seem to have had no problem with what Mahler bequeathed us – which is not to be unaware that balances can be manipulated in the studio – yet Bruno Walter (with Ernst Haefliger; Walter conducted the work’s posthumous first performance in November 1911), Leonard Bernstein (James King) and Klemperer himself (Fritz Wunderlich) seemed to take Mahler at his word. More pertinently, a concert like-for-like, I remember an astonishing account of the first movement conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi in this same venue about fifteen years ago. He unleashed a seething and disturbing web of sound from the Philharmonia Orchestra, fully fortissimo and also a miracle of clarity, details in vivid relief, both supportive of and testing the tenor – and Ben Heppner rode the waves in unflinching style. It was tremendous!

Lilli Paasikivi. Photograph: Kira GluschkoffSo, the issue is not that Colin Matthews undertook to do this arrangement, but that it is needed at all, and that Mark Elder, one of today’s finest conductors and also steeped in Mahler’s music, should have thought it necessary. The performance itself was, for this particular commentator, as follows:

  • ’The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow’ lacked bite and swagger, the music damped down, but this was not necessarily a consequence of Matthews’s adjustments; and, in fairness, very little seemed ‘missing’. Paul Groves had a good go at his part while being slightly outside of it, and strained anyway, but confrontation and struggle were in short supply.
  • ’The Lonely One in Autumn’ introduced Lilli Paasikivi (Ekaterina Gubanova was listed some while ago). Paasikivi was touching if just a little too operatic and Wagnerian in the climax. Elder ensured that the autumn leaves gently breezed along, details rustled appreciably, and oboist Ian Hardwick was superb.
  • ’Of Youth’ was jaunty, Groves in his element.
  • ’Of Beauty’ opened peacefully, enough to set up a resounding contrast when the horses trample all before them, but it didn’t really happen. Yes, it was musically articulate, from Paasikivi and players, the mandolin nicely audible, but the violence and circus sarcasm was underplayed. The longing of the closing bars touched the heart though.
  • ’The Drunkard in Spring’ was certainly vernal, Groves ardent, but a little more swing was needed. During this movement, Elder parted company with his baton. It neatly dissected the centrally placed cellos (left) and violas. That will tell you that Elder typically had the violin sections sitting antiphonally – absolutely what Mahler knew and wrote for. The errant stick was returned for…
  • ’The Farewell’ – Juliette Bausor’s flute-playing was mesmerising in its silken loveliness and magnetism, and Hardwick again shone. It was a swift reading, lacking chill, desolation and blackness, let alone the suggestion of being on the brink, and there were a few instances where the otherwise-excellent LPO, here and elsewhere, might have welcomed a little more preparation time. Nevertheless, Elder’s straight course did bring certainty to the lengthy orchestral passage at the movement’s mid-point, and if Paasikivi wasn’t the most pianissimo-conscious of singers, she did find a confiding hush for the closing reiteration of “ewig” (for ever and ever…).

    There was also a touch of tentativeness in the performance of Anton Webern’s Im Sommerwind (1904), an alluring work on its own terms as well as fascinating in relation to the individual and important composer that Webern went on to become. Im Sommerwind (not included by Webern in his very select thirty-one opus numbers) is described as “an idyll for large orchestra” (albeit without trombones and tuba), rather rhapsodic, a sort of updated ‘Forest Murmurs’, which begins from nothing and returns there, suggestive of dawn to dusk. The LPO’s gentle playing was magical, and the quirkier ideas were stylishly shaped; what was less successful was being made so aware of Webern’s structural naivety – and if Elder was being candid with the piece, he might also have disguised the fault-lines rather more. It’s a lovely piece for all that, very finely orchestrated, with some Wagner, Richard Strauss and – he should never be forgotten – Max Reger in the mix, and not forgetting a correspondence with Mahler for suggesting ‘the great outdoors’. With Im Sommerwind, Webern joined the club and soon after resigned to form his own (one might suggest that Elliott Carter did the same, also to highly personal achievement); if Webern rejected his youthful adventure with nature, he didn’t withdraw it; rightly so, for it shows a 21-year-old creator of burgeoning promise.

    The most completely successful performance of the evening was the Schoenberg, which had been intensively rehearsed to thoroughly musical, expressive and lucid effect. Although we were not informed which edition was being played – Schoenberg made revisions of his Opus 16 in 1922 and 1949 – the use of a contrabass clarinet (amongst other aspects) determined that we were being beguiled by the scoring from 1909; and only right and proper, in the context of The Rest of Noise festival, that we should hear Schoenberg’s original extravagance. Elder ensured that motifs were continuous in the ‘Premonitions’ of the first Piece; that the melodies of ‘The Past’ were seamless; and there was much enticement with the indivisible colours and glinting evocation of ‘Colours’. The whole performance, refined yet potent and dynamic, also told of the emotional turmoil yet compositional rigour of ‘Peripetia’ and ‘The Obbligato Recitative’, ending as if on a precipice – where now for music? The world premiere of Five Orchestral Pieces was at the Proms in 1912, the indefatigable Sir Henry Wood urging-on his orchestra during a (the?) rehearsal thus: “Stick with it gentlemen, this is nothing to what you will have to play in twenty-five years’ time.” Whether ‘noise’ or music of deep inspiration, the ‘rest’ is well catered for this year at the Southbank Centre.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Skip to content