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Mahler, ‘Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen;’ Bruckner, 3rd Symphony. Deutsches Symphonie – Orchester Berlin, Kent Nagano, Thomas Quasthoff. Barbican Hall, 9th April 2002. ( M. E.)


This concert, and its pair on Thursday night, must be amongst the most advertised and hyped of the season; on taking one’s seat at, or exiting from virtually every event since early September, one has been presented with a glossy leaflet about it, and, even more revealingly, on this evening, the seats bore flyers offering two tickets for the price of one to Thursday’s concert; one would have thought that the hall might have been full - for Terfel or Fleming, queues at the box office, strictly only one Press ticket allocation – but for Quasthoff and Nagano, despite all the extensive hype and plenty of papering, there were still rows of empty seats. Why? Is Mahler so unpopular? Is Bruckner so difficult? I recall seeing some empty seats for a Chailly/Goerne all – Mahler evening at the RFH a year or so ago, but put that down to stiff competition from Andreas Scholl at the next-door QEH. It simply astonished me that the Barbican did not have standing room only for a singer who I would cross a desert to hear, and a fine orchestra under a conductor with such natural command.

It was inevitable that there would some kind of tribute to the Queen Mother on the day of her funeral, and it was a glorious one; after a minute’s silence, Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ was performed with utterly moving grace, and it was extremely unfortunate that someone chose to burst into applause just as Quasthoff had sung his final phrase, but well before the exquisite music had concluded. What was even worse, and unforgivable, was that several latecomers were admitted after this; Nagano, with his back to the audience, was unaware, and did not glance round to see what was all too obvious to Quasthoff – as the music began, three gaudily – dressed women took their seats in the middle of the front stalls, only just seating themselves fussily as the words ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’ were sung. Disgraceful; Quasthoff took it inscrutably but it cannot have helped his concentration, and it really is about time the hall did something about this practice, in which it is by far the worst London offender.

‘Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen’ is the perfect vehicle for Quasthoff’s voice, and he sang it with his characteristic combination of pathos, aristocratic ease of delivery, dramatic urgency and sensitivity to words. The top of his voice has a really tenorial ring, and his low notes are those of a true bass; he sings these words as though they are not in fact rather inept effusions by the composer but amongst the greatest examples of German lyric poetry, and it is also immensely to his credit that he makes very little of the more goofy moments such as ‘Zink zink! Schön und flink.’ Although he did not take the lines ‘Auf der Strasse steht ein Lindenbaum / da hab ich zum erstenmal im Schlaf geruht!’ without a breath in the middle, a feat with which Fischer-Dieskau once made my jaw drop in astonishment, his brief intake of air after ‘Lindenbaum’ was so tiny as to be almost imperceptible, and his control and communicativeness throughout were exemplary. The orchestra played beautifully for him, guided by Nagano’s exceptionally sensitive shaping of the music.

Quasthoff was at his finest at moments of sadness, despair and anguish such as ‘Nein!Nein! Das ich mein, mir nimmer blühen kann!’ and of course the melancholy close of ‘Alles! Alles! Lieb und Leid! /Und Welt und Traum’ where his tone had such aching pathos that it seemed to send the audience into a trance; this tone, at once forcefully masculine and sweetly tremulous, is what individualizes his singing to such a marked degree, and one can only imagine how moving his ‘Kindertötenlieder’ on Thursday is likely to prove. I suggest bringing a strong hanky.

The orchestra and conductor really showed what they could do in the second half, which consisted of Bruckner’s 3rd in the rarely performed original version of 1873, and I have never before heard Bruckner played with such convincing power and spirit, so much so that I was almost persuaded that this symphony is not merely a collection of lyrical moments interspersed with a few spot- the – Wagner quotation passages. As the programme reminded us, this original version preceded Bruckner’s torments of self – doubt and the advice of frequently misguided well –wishers, and it unfolded here with real grandeur.

Bruckner’s appeal, as far as I and I am sure many others are concerned, is his combination of Schubertian lyricism and Wagnerian power, and Nagano’s reading of the work seemed calculated to play to that. The eloquently lyrical passages, such as the ‘song group’ of the first movement and the first theme of the Adagio, were played with exceptional clarity and sensitivity, and all those so – recognizable Wagnerian moments where the violins and brass seem just about to break into such pieces as the Pilgrims Chorus from ‘Tannhauser,’ received intense, highly dramatic readings. I have never seen bassists work as hard as these ones did in the third movement and the Finale; indeed every section of the orchestra seemed to be playing as though their lives depended upon it. Nagano held it all together with measured, eloquent skill, even managing to convey that most difficult of contrasts in the last movement, which the composer had suggested represented the juxtaposition of the joys and sorrows of life.

The same orchestra, conductor and soloist will perform ‘Kindertötenlieder’ and Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major on Thursday, and it would be fitting if there were no empty seats in the house; there are certainly unlikely to be very many dry eyes.


Melanie Eskenazi

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