Das Klagende Lied

Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6
Das klagende Lied [Original version, including Waldmärchen]

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (soprano)
Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano)
Johan Botha (tenor)
Mark Delavan (baritone)

Boys of King’s College Choir, Cambridge
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Berg and Mahler are frequently juxtaposed in concert programmes these days, though the former’s Opus 6 and the latter’s effective ‘Opus 1’ would seem to be a previously untried pairing: one that throws up a range of intriguing parallels and associations as were evoked by the present performances.

With an indebtedness to Mahler’s Sixth Symphony that goes beyond the mere presence of hammer blows, Berg’s Three Pieces are the nearest that he (or any member of the Second Viennese School) came to elaborating the Expressionist aesthetic on a symphonic scale – though any attempt to present the work as a cumulative symphony manqué is doomed to failure. Better to emphasise the inherent contrast between formal types and procedures – as Donald Runnicles seemed intent on doing with as expansive yet finely sustained account of the ‘Präludium’, which reached its apex with a sure sense of inevitability. Surprising, then, that the ensuing ‘Reigen’ seemed to elude him completely – its fragmented opening all at sea rhythmically, before rushing the central dance-like sequence and finding in the spectral coda nothing evocative or mysterious. The hesitant beginning of the ‘Marsch’ was equally unpropitious, but then Runnicles galvanised proceedings so that the music moved purposefully to its climax – forceful if not exactly pulverising – and traversed the required extremes of timbre down to a pulsating coda and explosive pay-off. Its ‘old world’ sense of grandeur and decay made this a rather different approach from that which the BBC Symphony has given in the past, but Runnicles’s late-Romantic perspective was, in the main, persuasive on its own terms.

From the beginning of Berg’s maturity to that of Mahler’s creativity in earnest, 35 years or so earlier, is a far greater step than might be thought; one made more astonishing by the degree to which the dramatic cantata “Das klagende Lied” foreshadows everything to come. And since the original version of all three parts has been available for performance, consistency as well as originality of thought has become the more evident. Of course, ‘original version’ does not necessarily equate with ‘original conception’ – and certain of the more fanciful requirements (eleven soloists, and the recourse to military brass – not to mention natural horns) can quite easily be avoided without infringing the essence of what the composer strove to achieve. More important is the intricate and diaphanous orchestration which, drawing on Weber and early Wagner, even Schumann, albeit at a remove from the more focused and stratified, imposing sound that he was later to favour (not least in the two-part revision of this cantata) – and which presents very real problems of balance in live performance.

If Runnicles did not always succeed in this respect, he brought out the ‘feel’ of Mahler’s music to a considerable and communicative degree, as he did the manner by which the descriptive nature of the text is integrated symphonically into the musical structure. For this reason, performing the cantata in its three-part entirety really is preferable – allowing the evolution of the various motifs to proceed as a logical and unforced continuity: a formal ‘backbone’ on which the more illustrative features can be attached. Runnicles had the measure of ‘Waldmärchen’ – still considered the ‘poor relation’ to the latter two parts, but which is unrivalled as an encapsulation of adolescent sensibility – as it proceeds from gauche dramatic ballad to a depiction of fratricide and its aftermath, and which is spellbinding in its immediacy. Tension dropped briefly in the closing stages of ‘Der Spielmann’, if not to the detriment of overall momentum, while the respectively festive and tragic extremes of ‘Hochzeitsstück’ were graphically realised – the tonal dislocation of the offstage orchestra imparting a manic excitement as the denouement is reached, and with the awe-struck close anything but serene in its remoteness.

There was a generally laudable contribution from the soloists – notably Michelle DeYoung, whose role is much the most extensive, but also Gweneth-Ann Jeffers in the first part. Neither of their voices especially individual in itself, Johan Botha and Mark Delavan complemented each other effectively – vindicating Mahler’s decision to spread narrative freely between singers rather than to allot specific roles. The boys’ voices add an undeniably theatrical edge to the twin moments of revelation – yet while the two solo contributions were secure enough, the choir itself struggled to project over the orchestra. The BBC Symphony Chorus sang with typical commitment, and met the more extreme vocal demands with aplomb. Nonetheless, this was Runnicles’s performance in that he saw the extent of Maher’s vision whole; leaving one in no doubt that, had the future composer of symphonies never materialised, his contribution at a time of rapid change in musical Romanticism was still a pivotal one.

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