Wigmore Hall First Night

Six Songs for the Unquiet Traveller [Wigmore Hall commission: world premiere]
Mahler arr. Schoenberg and Riehn
Das Lied von der Erde

Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano)

Steve Davislim (tenor)

Nash Ensemble
Paul Kildea

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 9 October, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This concert marked the re-opening of the Wigmore Hall following extensive refurbishment. Everything looked spruced up and elegant, but the emphasis has been on restoring the decor to its original state, rather than any radical refit. Refreshment facilities have been upgraded and, altogether, the premises look new-minted. New seating, based on the old, has been provided for the auditorium. Larger-framed and longer-legged patrons might feel pushed for space, but overall there was a sense of visiting a friend of fond remembrance who has had the opportunity to smarten up.

To celebrate the occasion a new work was commissioned from Oscar Strasnoy, who responded with a cycle written expressly for Ann Murray and scored for the same forces as the Schoenberg/Riehn arrangement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Strasnoy (born in Buenos Aires and now a French citizen living in Paris) collaborated with Alberto Manguel, similarly an Argentinean residing in Paris. The poems outlined a kind of travelogue, with some verbal imagery, which does not immediately suggest musical setting. Strasnoy’s note indicated that, ideally, “text and music … interact and are complimentary, but … operate as two parallel actions”. Strasnoy’s musical pedigree includes studies at the conservatories in Buenos Aires and Paris, as well as the Hochschule für Musik in Frankfurt. As might be expected, then, the music is well crafted, and the instrumentation colourful, effective and imaginative. One mannerism I didn’t care for was the over-use of some slithery string writing, suggesting a remnant of 1960s’ Penderecki, but the wind writing was piquant, from the opening piccolo solo through to the jaunty collective winds at the start of the final song.

Stylistically, like many contemporary composers, the word ‘eclectic’ seems an apt description, with comparatively lyrical moments offset against some fragmentary ideas, with notes passed between instruments, like Webern, though there was little sign of the latter’s austerity. The six poems are musically well contrasted, with alternating fast-slow overall tempos, with the more reflective settings perhaps impressing most and in which the music seemed somehow more ‘personal’. The hints of swing in the first song, and the touch of cabaret in the last, were possibly less convincing – undeniably amusing though they were. The vocal line is often declamatory in nature, and no really memorable melodic moments were immediately apparent. However, Ann Murray sang it with considerable confidence, although there were times when she was covered by the instruments. Her diction was especially praiseworthy, and managed to make some of the less than felicitous turns of phrase sound convincing. The sixth song was a real tour de force, with florid writing reflecting her prowess in Handel.

If, at times, one admired the composer’s craftsmanship rather than the musical end-product, it was nevertheless a welcome move for the Wigmore Hall to have commissioned a new work.

Arnold Schoenberg intended his chamber version of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde to facilitate its performance at the “Society for Private Musical Performances” in Vienna at a time when Mahler’s original was not performed with any frequency. Paul Kildea’s note was rather emphatically trying to justify performing this arrangement which, in the end, Schoenberg did not complete. Rainer Riehn made the version in 1983 working from Schoenberg’s notated score. Kildea suggests that “the chamber version of Das Lied provides a heightened intimacy and focus compared to the full orchestral version,” as if “heightened intimacy and focus” are not possible via a good performance of Mahler’s original. Paul Kildea is quite right to note the “remarkable chamber-like quality” of the scoring, but, curiously, goes on to suggest that these are “often swamped in performances today by an orchestral size and sound unknown to Mahler”. Well, Mahler certainly wrote for a large and varied orchestral body. It is unlikely he expected his full instrumentation to be reduced.

In any event, a conscientious conductor would ensure that the chamber-like qualities of the original are handled appropriately to contrast with the onslaught of the full ensemble. With curious irony, this Schoenberg/Riehn scoring, as performed on this occasion, seemed consistently too loud. Thus the longed for ‘intimacy’ did not register. The horn was very often too prominent, and the general dynamic level too high. The many piano – and below – markings registered at mezzo-forte and the singers were sometimes struggling to be heard.

The scoring itself is not in any way especially innovative. Indeed, Schoenberg seems, where possible, to have stuck as close as possible to Mahler’s original, except, of course, the strings whose parts are all taken by individual players. Thus Marianne Thorsen, as first violin, was especially active. She played extremely well – as did the entire Nash Ensemble. The overall sonority rather recalled that of Schoenberg’s own First Chamber Symphony, though the piano is not used in that work. Its substitution for various instruments – especially the trumpet in the first movement and contrabassoon in the last – is the weakest aspect of the scoring.

Steve Davislim impressed initially in the cruel tenor writing of “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde”, making a heroic bid to encompass the extreme range. However, it is difficult to imagine his essaying the part in Mahler’s original scoring, and he rather lost steam in his last song, the high As not ringing out as strongly as they ought. Inevitably, the gentle strains of “Von der Jugend” found him better suited.

Ann Murray sang with her usual confidence and fine artistry, though a real sense of the ‘innig’ qualities of Mahler’s conception was nullified. Perversely, it was the sense of “heightened intimacy” which was absent from the performance as a whole, and the final cries of “ewig”, though delicately shaded, were scuppered by the all-too-audible celeste which, instead of registering gently from within the body of a large orchestra, was ringingly prominent and bordered perilously close to kitsch, which is the last thing one wants at this sublime moment.

Paul Kildea – the Wigmore’s Artistic Director – conducted both works with clarity and purpose, and whatever disappointments there might have been, a packed house greeted the performances – and the newly restored hall – with enthusiasm.

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