Thursday 24 January 2013

Paasikivi/Groves/LPO/Elder - Webern, Schoenberg, and Mahler, 23 January 2013

Royal Festival Hall

Webern – Im Sommerwind
Schoenberg – Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16
Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde (with first movement re-orchestrated by Colin Matthews)

Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano)
Paul Groves (tenor)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)
The opening to Webern’s Das Sommerwind sounded ‘harmonious’ in more than one sense, seemingly as much Webern’s answer to the Das Rheingold Prelude, an evocation of the most fundamental nature of tonal harmony itself, as something more programmatic, though that would come. Perhaps the Wagnerian antecedent lay in Sir Mark Elder’s emphasis; perhaps it has been there all along, and it had simply not registered so strongly in my experience before. At any rate, it intrigued, invited. Sweet-toned reminiscences of Mahler and Strauss, the latter in Till Eulenspiegel-like good humour, followed, the LPO woodwind principals gratefully taking their opportunity to shine. One would hardly have guessed the composer; indeed, one never would during the course of this piece preceding Webern’s life-changing, history-changing meeting with Schoenberg. Whilst some of the orchestration is already approaching the level of masterly, some is perhaps a little gauche, the instrumentation standing out a little too obviously. (But then, if we are comparing someone to Mahler and Strauss, or indeed the later Webern, the standards are stratospheric.) It was, however, a wonderful opportunity to hear the piece loving performed, with an apt summer glow most welcome in freezing London. This strange, quite uncharacteristic beginning to Webern’s extraordinary orchestral career has received tighter performances – inevitably, for instance, from Boulez – but a more rhapsodic approach does it no real harm. If it lingers, perhaps being the only piece by Webern that outstays its welcome, it nevertheless does not deserve a mobile telephone contribution during its closing bars. Shame upon the perpetrator!

The move to Schoenberg’s op.16 Pieces underlined the gulf between a fascinating early work and a towering masterpiece. Elder presented ‘Vorgefühle’ with commendable clarity, even if it emerged a little four-square. It gathered momentum nicely, however, and soon turned magnificently monstrous. Mahler on acid, haunted by ghosts of Brahms: what could be more Viennese than that? ‘Vergangenes’ was languorous, in a state of seemingly perpetual dissolution, yet nevertheless continuing. It seemed at times to prefigure the Klangfarbenmelodie of its successor – a cunningly highlighted link here in performance – and yet the background of a piece such as the First Chamber Symphony, op.9, with its tight-knit motivic writing, was equally apparent. Halluncinatory celesta tones (Catherine Edwards) almost stole the show, but in reality that instrument was only first amongst equals in a London Philharmonic Orchestra on fine form. And my goodness, what an astounding score this is! ‘Farben’ was mysterious, reticent, innig, to employ an indispensable, untranslatable German word. This performance sounded as if it were a laudable attempt to regain something of the piece’s initial revolutionary quality, not through aggression but through a subtler resolution to make us truly listen; Nono, Schoenberg’s posthumous son-in-law, would have understood. There was a true sense of loss when its brief stay was over. ‘Peripetie’ emerged very much in the mould of the first piece, ominously dramatic. Developing variation proved key to our aural understanding of ‘Das obligate Rezitativ’. Occasionally one might have wished for heightened colouristic awareness, especially earlier on, and a richer string tone after the fashion of that great Schoenbergian, Daniel Barenboim, but narration was as clear as in any conventional recitative. Again, we were compelled to listen. We emerged as if from a dream, shaken and uncertain.

I wish I had not read the programme first. That is not intended as a criticism of Gavin Plumley’s note, but rather because I wonder how I should have reacted to the first movement, had I not been aware that Colin Matthews had been commissioned by Elder to re-orchestrate it. Would I have noticed? I should like to think so, and am pretty sure that I should have realised that something was awry, or at least different. The difficulties tenors have this with this movement are notorious, and Matthews is quite right to point to Mahler’s tinkering both with other composers’ scores and his own. It sometimes sounded thinner, even shriller, though I think at times that might have been a matter also of Elder’s conducting; it also sometimes sounded restrained, even constrained, as if the fuller scoring were attempting to burst through its reduction. Without hearing Matthews’s work again, or better still seeing the score, I shall leave the matter by saying that I could not help but long for what Mahler wrote, not out of any fundamentalist Werktreue but simply because, vocal difficulties notwithstanding, it simply sounds more ‘finished’ – to me. As it was, the movement remained something of a shout for Paul Groves, though there could be no gainsaying his audible and visible commitment. I wished that Elder would relax a little at times, but that was a matter of degree.

‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ revealed first an excellent oboe solo (Ian Hardwick), suffused with melancholic longing, soon joined by equally splendid woodwind colleagues, and then by Lilli Paasikivi, her voice deeper than one often hears today, even in this repertoire. There was more than a touch of the earth-mother to her performance: rather wonderful, I thought. Elder paced the movement well and maintained its flow. Although there were a few instances of instrumental smudging, there was nothing too serious. The final stanza brought true passion, almost operatic, or at least a symphonic-song-shadow – I realise I am in danger here of succumbing to the Wagnerian selige Morgentraum-Deutweise disease – of Mahler’s work in the opera house. Groves contributed a winning, appropriate earnestness to the third movement, almost as if revisiting the Wunderhorn songs of Mahler’s (relative) youth, now invigoratingly set against orchestral chinoiserie and the LPO’s buoyantly sprung rhythms. Both orchestra and Elder were really at their best here, lilt and colour equally impressive.

‘Von der Schönheit’, by contrast, suffered from a curious tendency towards the rhythmically distended, making it difficult to discern Mahler’s guiding thread, undeniably incidental beauties notwithstanding. Paasikivi, however, was never less than engaging as a narrative and dramatic guide. Orchestral brashness and Elder’s driven conducting in the middle of the movement had it veer uncomfortably close to Shostakovich. Mahler should sound so much more interesting, so much more variegated, than that. Groves struggled with Mahler’s admittedly strenuous demands in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’, though again he threw himself headlong into the great challenge. Elder shaped the structure far more keenly than he had that of its predecessor. Pieter Schoeman’s sweet-toned violin solo was especially worthy of note.

The ominous tread to the dark orchestral opening of ‘Der Abschied’ said it all. Mahler’s sparing orchestration sounded close to the ‘real’ Webern’ – as of course it is. The warmth of Paasiviki’s tone would have melted the stoniest of hearts. An unmistakeable echo, both in vocal line and orchestra, of the Third Symphony’s Nietzschean ‘deepness’ of the world was to be heard as the world fell asleep: ‘Die Welt schläft ein!’ If only that had not occasioned a barrage of coughing from certain sections of the audience. Elder exhibited a commendable command of line, though there were times when I wished again that he would relax a little more. As the breeze ran through the shadow of the pines, we heard, however, a truly terrifying stillness, flute set against double basses, as the soloist implored: the pain of harren, of waiting. That line, ‘O Schönheit! O ewigen Liebens-Lebenstrunk’ne Welt!’ came forth with what I can only call exhilarating sadness, poised between the block rejoicing of the Second Symphony – a memory, though perhaps no longer attainable – and Webern’s Klee-like pointillism. The great orchestral interlude that followed was shaped by Elder with great understanding of Mahler the musical dramatist, thereby rendering all the more desolate what was to come. And yet, consolation, when it came, was properly, wondrously earned, not least by Paasikivi. It was Mahlers Verklärung; it was our transfiguration too.