Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Das klagende Lied [Original Version]
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Melanie Diener (soprano), Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano), Stuart Skelton (tenor) & Christopher Purves (baritone)
Trebles from Westminster Abbey: Theodore Beeny, Augustus Bell, Timothy Fairburn, Thomas Fetherstonehaugh, Matthew Lloyd-Wilson & Oluwatimilehin Otukedo
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 7 August, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
This programme deftly contrasted two works from the late 1870s, both exhibiting their own romance, from composers at markedly different stages of their artistic development. The scale and demands of Brahms’s Violin Concerto have been described as “not for, but against the violin” (attributable to either Joseph Hellmesberger, who conducted the work’s Vienna premiere, or Hans von Bülow). However big-boned and technically demanding it is, in this Proms account the performers went out of their way to demonstrate that Brahms’s Violin Concerto need not always be as massive in scale as such commentary would have us expect. Christian Tetzlaff’s exquisitely clean playing had wonderful purity of tone – aided by a sensitive accompaniment from the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner – and was able to articulate all that complex interweaving of thematic threads without loss of dynamic contrast. Joseph Joachim’s cadenza had a sense of spontaneity. Gardner’s tempos were generally on the fleet side, particularly in the finale in which the sprung rhythms had a bounce that was infectious, though there were moments when ebb and flow seemed tense rather than jovial. There was some super oboe-playing to open the second movement. Tetzlaff offered an encore, ‘Gavotte en rondo’ from J. S. Bach’s Partita in E (BWV1006).
To date all Proms performances of the young Mahler’s Das klagende Lied have been in its raw original version, though even the revision (with a movement dropped and a singer less) is not encountered too often. It is always fascinating to hear this work as so much of its content foreshadows the composer’s maturity. The narrative is the composer’s elaboration of a popular if grisly tale, involving cold feminine charms, fratricide, and finally retribution heralded at a wedding feast by a minstrel played on a flute carved a dead man’s bones. The four principal soloists either supply description or commentary, and thus their scope for theatricality is limited. Such detachment from the plot is one of the piece’s attractions in that the vocal soloists, allied to orchestral descriptions, tell listeners all they need know about the protagonists. Nature and countryside are evoked in that already-distinctive Mahlerian way; and the eerie use of treble voices as the shadowy pronouncements of the dead brother are very effective.
The BBCSO was on fine fettle, the players relishing their chances to paint the scenery and abet gloomy human machinations, and the off-stage band effects were realised perfectly. Edward Gardner, with all his opera house experience, kept the cantata on a suitably theatrical course as its events unfolded. Of the soloists Anna Larsson (replacing Ekaterina Gubanova) impressed with mellow, unforced and beautiful singing, Larsson knowing how to colour and inflect the text with meaning without artifice. Christopher Purves demonstrated an ability to deliver long-breathed phrases with tonal warmth, and Stuart Skelton used his clarion Heldentenor with lots of tonal colour even in alt. Melanie Diener sang well enough, though as the native German speaker of these singers her words were curiously the least distinct – possibly owing to the high-lying setting. The six boy trebles, from Westminster Abbey, were a cracking team. The ever-dependable BBC Singers (here augmented) provided choral strength.