Lulu & Mahler 4

Lulu – Suite
Symphony No.4

Christine Schäfer (soprano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 17 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Alban Berg did not live to complete his second and final opera, “Lulu”. Given the climate in mid-1930s Germany, he almost certainly sensed the impossibility of having has work staged. He therefore prepared some of the completed music for concert performance, and Erich Kleiber conducted this suite for the first time on 30 November 1934 – the last time Berg’s music was heard in Germany until 1945.

Daniele Gatti brought out the sensuous, passionate side of this score, aided by superlative playing from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In spite of the Schoenbergian thorniness of some of the writing, Berg’s essential lyricism shone through, and the strings played with tenderness where needed, with wind solos emerging effortlessly and adding their distinctive voices, as did the vibraphone. The more violent episodes were disturbing enough, even if one wished for greater clarity of instrumental detail.

Christine Schäfer is a seasoned exponent of the role of Lulu, and her confidence in the wide-ranging tessitura is a decided asset. Her colouring of words in ‘Lulu’s Song’ was memorable, though she was not always able to project through thicker orchestral textures. The final Adagio had, in places, an almost Mahlerian resignation, and after a powerful outburst depicting Lulu’s murder, Schäfer delivered the dying Countess Geschwitz’s lament from behind the orchestra – none too successfully in terms of audibility. Nevertheless, this was a potent performance that captured the essence of both the music and drama most successfully.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, sandwiched as it is between the mighty edifices of the Third and Fifth Symphonies, is often viewed as a much ‘smaller’ work by comparison. In terms of orchestration and duration, it is; but Gatti’s interpretation suggested that this is a much ‘bigger’ symphony in terms of its range of expression and symphonic progression. Gatti displayed scrupulous attention to detail and balance and, one might add, note-lengths; all to the benefit of the music. The first subject of the first movement was ravishingly played by all sections of the strings, with unanimous phrasing and articulation and well-observed glissandos – a particular and important feature of this symphony.

Thus began a comfortable journey; Gatti never crossed over the fine line into schmaltz, though he did not shirk from allowing the quintessentially Viennese qualities to shine forth. I began to wonder whether the journey was going to be too comfortable, but during the development, the shadows – rightly – began to appear, and Mahler’s initially comfy vision took on a distinctly darker turn. Extremes of timbre and texture were noted, though without unnecessary exaggeration, and the climax of this section had an aptly troubling quality. However, the strings resumed their travels as if having only momentarily strayed into unexpected territory, and the movement was brought to a bright conclusion.

Not all hobgoblins were dispelled, as they appeared again in the second movement which was taken at just the right tempo and boasted an outstanding horn obbligato. Clio Gould’s ‘out of tune’ violin also added eerie colour, and the clarinets’ tongue-poking was delivered exactly as Mahler requires – by projecting the instruments right out to the audience. The sudden switch to D major was a magical moment, but one sensed throughout this movement a feeling of unease hidden behind apparent surface charm.

The lower strings played the opening of the rich third movement most lovingly, and as one variation followed on from its predecessor, the whole had a wonderful impression of something seamless – not at all easy to achieve. The brief glimpse of the ‘heavenly’ key of E major was ecstatic, but some might have preferred just slightly less heavy timpani.

The fourth movement was a sheer delight throughout, with the various incidents charmingly coloured by both Christine Schäfer and the players. Gatti had noted Mahler’s injunction that the singer should be accompanied ‘extremely discreetly’, thus Schäfer was able to convey the text and musical line without struggle. There was some rapt, hushed string playing for the final verse, with cor anglais, bass clarinet and harp perfectly poised.

This was an outstanding performance and, throughout, the RPO’s playing was of a very high order indeed.

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