Orchestre de Paris

Das Lied von der Erde

Andreas Schmidt (baritone)
London Voices (men)

Yvonne Naef (mezzo-soprano)
Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor)

Orchestre de ParisChristoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 28 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The theme of this concert was ‘valediction’. At the time of writing these works, both composers knew their own deaths were imminent. Berio, an atheist, set texts that probe men’s notions of God. Mahler – a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism (only partly because of career requirements in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) – set texts from the Chinese. In the last song, dwelling on the impermanence of man, Mahler added words fervently affirming the permanence of nature.

Thus Berio, the atheist, quizzically explored the presence of God in the words of companions he was leaving behind (Celan, Caproni, Sanguineti, Brendel and Pagis), whereas Mahler, the Christian, delivered, in effect, a (pagan?) love-poem to the world he was leaving behind: the world that, without him, would continue, so beautifully, to be.

The Berio is upward-moving – music thrusting towards air and the sky. Mahler’s piece lunges downwards, to earth, coming to rest in timeless repose. Stanze (rooms) is the usual wittily assembled assortment of texts, background of musical chatter and opportunities for musical commentary. Here, with arms wide open, Berio released his themes to the orchestra as if they were doves.

For the first time, though, Berio made a male soloist, male voices and the darker-hued, middle range instruments central to his writing. The solo part rarely rests, the narrative is near enough continuous, with minimal rest. There are five movements, five texts. The darkest is Celan’s “Tenebrae”, speaking of the difficulty of discerning anything God-like in pain, blood and suffering. In the central movement, Sanguineti draws upon Job in depicting a capricious and powerful deity quite capable of inflicting untold damage irresponsibly. Pagis, too, speaks of release from suffering. Caproni and Brendel write in lighter vein. I particularly liked the notion of approaching God through Johann Strauss, through a polka – and one with the glorious name of Tritsch-Tratsch.

Andreas Schmidt was magnificent. His voice was steady and commanding, grave but not sepulchral, sonorous but not in love with itself. Astonishingly, he held an appropriately sombre tone throughout, while varying his voice in recognition of the disparate texts – thus sombre and deeply sorrowing for the Celan, yet sombre and light-hearted for Brendel. The dignity and integrity of his artistry ensured that this performance of Stanze was both moving and definitive.

Orchestre de Paris under Christoph Eschenbach responded well too – brilliantly, and capriciously, just as Berio must have wanted. They tossed themes serious and not so serious about lightly and assuredly.

Das Lied von der Erde was less successful. Performances of this great work stand or fall by its two most original sections – the joyless cacophony of the first song and the radiant darkness of the last one. Unfortunately, Orchestre de Paris excelled in songs 2 to 5, the musicians seemed to have Ravel’s view of notes Chinese to draw on – excitable, skittish and inconsequential. The melancholy, reflective and autumnal flows of “Der Einsame im Herbst” were affecting, too – limpid, pastoral and lightly brooding.The first song, “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” lacked the full blast of its crazed vigour. There is, of course, a technical problem here: few tenors can over-ride the decibels of the unleashed orchestra. We heard Anthony Dean Griffey very clearly, always. The orchestra, unfortunately, was no wild beast. It made no attempt to be – and was, in fact, very well house-trained. Griffey makes a pleasant, smooth sound. He can soar agreeably. He is also rather florid. Piercing, manic abandon is beyond his ken.

In “Der Abschied”, the precision and delicacy of the playing, particularly from flutes, clarinets, bassoons, harp and strings was beyond praise. In many respects this is a superior, refined orchestra. However, disastrously, the performance lacked weight. Hence, it could not effectively make the transition from depth to greater depth in what may well be the greatest bridge passage in all music.

Yvonne Naef was not a great deal of help. Her voice is controlled, very controlled, agreeable and capable. Her singing was, however, rather expressionless and distanced. I sensed a withheld fire. I certainly had no sense of the possibilities for expressing grief, sorrow, vulnerability, pain, longing, and wonder that are integral to the score.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 10 September at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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