Symphony ‘Mathis der Maler’
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Symphony No.9 in D minor
Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 1 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
A renowned figure in Germany, Scandinavia and North America, Herbert Blomstedt (born 1927) has never achieved comparable recognition in the UK, if only because he has not enjoyed a lasting relationship with any orchestra here. Yet as this Prom amply demonstrated, here is a conductor whose understanding of the physiognomy of an orchestra is as complete as any – especially when it is played out over a substantial and unfailingly coherent programme such as also reaffirmed the Abbado-founded Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (with its upper age-limit of 26) to be an ensemble of international standing.
Blomstedt has championed Hindemith as thoroughly as any conductor of stature. Certainly there was nothing dogged or foursquare about this ‘Mathis der Maler’ Symphony: following a shaky initial chord (hardly the only latter-day performance to have been so affected!), the opening ‘Angel Concert’ was rhythmically vital with its textures possessing a clarity that made light of the music’s contrapuntal intricacy. The central ‘Entombment’ had a pathos out of all proportion to its length – woodwind solos phrased with unfailing poise – while, in the ‘Temptation of St Anthony’ that forms the imposing finale, Blomstedt rightly eschewed wantonly Expressionist overtones; drawing real anguish from the initial recitatives and finding a keen intensity in the driving outer portions, thrown into relief by the radiant music at its core as well as the chorale-capped apotheosis that brings about an eloquent conclusion.
The divide between cultural collapse and individual heartache was bridged by “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen”, its lovelorn anti-hero assumed by Christian Gerhaher. His airy baritone having pronounced tenor qualities such as avoided the merest hint of the gruff or bovine, the singer proved to be an unfailingly lucid and sympathetic guide through Mahler’s first song-cycle (to his own verse) yet there were reservations. The central section of the first song brought no appreciable lightening of mood, while the pensiveness into which its successor descends was a little inert. Gerhaher’s evident concern to avoid angst in the third song left it emotionally short-changed, while the final song’s play-off between the funereal and the idyllic felt circumspect to a fault. Blomstedt’s accompanying was unfailingly attentive and precise, but the performance’s overall impression remained an equivocal one.
Blomstedt has had a lengthy association with the symphonies of Bruckner, having made fine accounts of the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies with the Staatskapelle in Dresden and a continuing cycle with the Gewandhaus in Leipzig. There was no doubting the consistency or the conviction with which he led the GMJ through the Ninth Symphony, with the textural clarity of the reading (abetted by antiphonal violins, cellos behind first violins, trumpets directly behind the woodwind and 12 double basses in a row to the rear of the platform) a constant pleasure in itself.
That said, the performance was a swift one (54 minutes) and while that in itself does not preclude a corresponding intensity (as anyone having heard Michael Gielen in this work will surely attest), there were times when tension ran surprisingly low. The main themes of the first movement were soundly enough stated, but the development was disconcertingly reticent in accruing momentum such that its climax failed to clinch the ultimate drama, while the coda’s stoicism seemed far from implacable. Tensile but not ruthless, the outer portions of the scherzo exuded an almost Stravinskian rhythmic incisiveness, while the trio, deftly propelled (Blomstedt rightly maintaining a single tempo throughout), was capricious rather than spectral. The Adagio, though, brought the most doubts: nobly launched, its underlying trajectory was one of poise and proportion – bringing continuity to Bruckner’s most fractured such movement ostensibly at odds with the music and leaving its eventual climax with little expressive room to manoeuvre. Calm, even chaste, the coda was all of a piece with a conception that made the symphonic torso cohesive yet at the same time detached beyond what it should have been.
All of this is not to gainsay the quality of a concert that could scarcely be improved on as a traversal of the Austro-German symphonic repertoire and, as such, attracted an informed and appreciative audience. Hopefully, too, Blomstedt will be appearing with this orchestra in London again and soon.