Wednesday 16 December 2009

Staatskapelle Berlin/Gielen - Mahler and Bruckner, 14 December 2009

Konzerthaus, Berlin

Mahler – Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Bruckner – Symphony no.1 in C minor (Vienna version, 1890-91)

Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Michael Gielen (conductor)

A concert of two halves indeed – not so much in terms of the performances in themselves, but the works. I tried, I really tried, with Bruckner’s First Symphony. Unfortunately, the high standard of the performance only served to highlight what for me remained the grave shortcomings of the work itself. The first movement opened promisingly, Michael Gielen ensuring a gripping urgency to the response of the Staatskapelle Berlin. One of my very few reservations was a surprisingly lean sound to the strings, but after the exposition, this ceased to be a problem. I also wondered whether Gielen drove the music a bit hard, but then I should hardly have wished him to linger. The Tannhäuser-ish brass were truly resplendent, whilst the woodwind sounded delectable. And the structure was clear: perhaps too clear? The slow movement seemed to me the most successful. Once again, there was a Wagnerian grandeur to the Berlin brass. Moreover, a subtlety to the audible motivic working out in the strings put me in mind, much to my surprise, of Elgar. A magnificent bassoon solo should be credited. And there was no leanness of which to complain in the gleaming climactic gold, Viennese in quality, of the strings. Gielen ensured a furious scherzo, colourful too. If he could not quite paper over the cracks, then I am not sure anyone could. Once again, the brass, Freischütz-like horns, awesome trombones, and all, sounded magnificent, whilst the woodwind was full of woodland colour. The trio was nicely done, but I could make neither head nor tail of where it was going – largely, I fear, because Bruckner is unable to make it go anywhere at all. Then came the tumultuous finale – but to what end the tumult? Some marvellously sonorous playing from the lower strings could be savoured. I eventually gave up trying to discern a compositional thread so as simply to enjoy the Staatskapelle’s beautiful playing – and just about endured the movement’s apparently inordinate length.

The first half was devoted to Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs, split between Petra Lang and Hanno Müller-Brachmann. These were simply outstanding. If Müller-Brachmann seemed perhaps slightly to have the edge, that is probably partly at least a result of the nature of his songs. In any case, it is not a competition. Gielen and the Staatskapelle Berlin were equally crucial partners, for whose contribution I can find nothing but praise. Der Schildwache Nachtlied opened with a splendid military tread, setting the parameters not only for the song but for so much of the collection. And a new orchestral world, so crucial to much of the rest, was audibly glimpsed on and after ‘Muss traurige sein!’ Gielen showed, just in case anyone might have doubted, that impeccable modernist credentials entail no loss of Schwung when it came to Verlorne Müh’! Lang’s winsome cheek was spot on, likewise the loving (mock?) sternness of Müller-Brachmann’s response. One could almost have been at Der Rosenkavalier, albeit with something more cutting and harrowing in the orchestral ‘commentary’. Rhythms were, crucially, knowingly pointed in the following Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? Lang’s melismata were impeccably – and once again, knowingly – delivered, whilst the solo clarinettist simply had to be heard to be believed.

The after-life of Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt is worthy of an essay in itself, Second Symphony, Berio and all. Certainly the sinister tone of the orchestra ensured that the latter’s Sinfonia was all but straining to be heard. Once again, absolute rhythmic security was guaranteed by the conductor, whilst Müller-Brachmann was every inch the preacher in his delivery. Lang proved desperate but in no sense caricatured in Das irdische Leben, the orchestral contribution as urgent as I have ever heard. This was as terrifying – and as real – as a nightmare, or, perhaps better, a fairy tale. Gielen’s rubato in the following Rheinlegendchen was supremely idiomatic. Müller-Brachmann was as winning a guide as one could possibly conceive – and then some. The beauty and meaning of his phrasing were simply beyond reproach. That he followed up with superlative comic ability in Lob des hohen Verstands, ‘high intellect’ lovingly mocked both by him and by the orchestral soloists. Gielen took Der Tamboursg’sell at a daringly slow tempo, which truly paid off. It was as ominous in its opening sadness and dignity as anything in Wozzeck, and so it continued. The ebbing away on ‘Gute Nacht’ was heart-stopping.

Urlicht was taken attacca, the oboe solo contribution almost unbearably beautiful. Tightness of rhythm from the outset, not least from the drums, proved a spur to invention in Revelge. Müller-Brachmann drew upon seemingly inexhaustible vocal reserves, whilst orchestral precision proved chilling in the very best sense. ‘Chilling’ was also the quality one should ascribe to Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen; indeed, this song chilled to the bone. So then, a magnificent Mahler performance: if only it could have been followed by more Mahler...