Monday, 12 October 2009

LSO/Haitink - Schubert and Mahler, 11 October 2009

Barbican Hall

Schubert – Symphony no.8 in B minor, ‘Unfinished’
Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde

Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano)
Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor)
London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

I doubt that I should have placed money on Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony being the greater performance in this programme, but that, despite some splendid orchestral playing from the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, is how it turned out. Bernard Haitink sounded more Furtwänglerian in the Schubert than I can recall before: a considerable contrast with his recent Beethoven. The first movement’s opening cello line sounded like a Brucknerian de profundis, immediately followed by teeming Schubertian life, from the woodwind especially. Placing the cellos on his right ensured that the antiphonal interplay between violins – often firsts and seconds – and cellos was given full opportunity to resound: instructive to those who would dogmatically argue for one seating arrangement or another. There were moments when the LSO’s woodwind and horns brought a magic that looked forward – of course, not that far forward – to Mendelssohn, but Bruckner, and Furtwängler’s Bruckner at that, returned in the development as ominous waves built up to express great angst, three trombones and all, and ultimately the unfulfilled developmental climax that necessitates the recapitulation. Haitink’s formal command was supreme throughout, not least in ensuring how very different the second group, with its new tonality, sounded in the recapitulation from its first appearance in the exposition. And the LSO musicians played their hearts out for him, never more than in the beautiful, desolate coda. There was real anger here, real tragedy.

The second, final movement once again brought woodland magic from woodwind and horns, answered gravely yet charmingly by the strings; there was rustic strength too. Then the hushed second subject prepared the way, yet permitted one to be taken aback by, the full orchestral onslaught with which its subsequent development commences, the conflict between the two expressive modes proving irresolvable – truly Romantic. New vistas would be glimpsed: a Mahlerian move, even if the vistas themselves were not so Mahlerian. Uneasy contentment was the mood of the close: unfinished business in more sense than one.

Haitink and the LSO were let down by the vocal soloists in Das Lied von der Erde. Anthony Dean Griffey was a last minute replacement for the indisposed Robert Gambill. I felt sorry for him but, in what were very unfair circumstances, he could rarely prove himself equal to Mahler’s extraordinary demands, doubtless unreasonable in themselves. Singing with a heavy vibrato throughout, his tone remained unmodulated, often laboured, perhaps especially during Von der Jugend, but elsewhere too. As if to compensate for the relative lack of vocal expression, he ‘acted’ too much, his facial expressions especially distracted. There were times, moreover, for instance in the opening line of Der Trunkene im Frühling, when he shouted more than sang. I had hoped for more from Christianne Stotijn, but she was perhaps the greater disappointment. Intonation was wobbly throughout her first number, Der Einsame im Herbst, and not just there. The penultimate stanza of Von der Schönheit came perilously close to Sprechgesang, not an effect I wish to hear again. Often, she sounded too much like a lyric soprano, lacking depth to her mezzo, though matters improved somewhat, albeit only somewhat, in Der Abschied. There she seemed more at home in the narrative passages. With all of those great accounts of the past ringing in the memory’s ears, this, even at its best, fell considerably short.

Sadly, this often eclipsed, or at least detracted from, a fine orchestral performance. The vigorous orchestral opening to Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde took me by surprise, the brass veering a little towards the brash, but it was full of the life shortly to be denied. String sweetness and richness were added to the palette later on. The lovely woodwind mix of Austria and chinoiserie with which Von der Jugend opened set the scene wonderfully, if only the vocal contribution had been more distinguished. When it came to Von der Schönheit, conductor and orchestra proved alert to innumerable shards and shifts of colour, pointing the way most revealingly towards Webern. The bird truly sang in its various guises in Der Trunkene im Frühling, before darkness terrifyingly descended upon the earth for the great farewell. The orchestral introduction to Der Abschied went further in its desolation even than the Schubert we had heard earlier, whilst the ‘interlude’ – the term hardly seems sufficient – following the words ‘O Schönheit, o ewigen Liebens, Lebens trunk’ne Welt,’ really had the bell toll for one and all. It was here, perhaps more than anywhere else, that I wished Haitink were conducting a symphony rather than a song cycle, for a slightly paradoxical consequence of the underpowered vocal contribution was that Das Lied sounded less, not more, symphonic than it ought. The final bars were ravishing, frightening in their stillness, but there was only so much the orchestra could do in such circumstances.