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S & H Concert Review

Mahler, ‘Kindertotenlieder,’ Schubert, Symphony no. 9 in C major, D944 (‘Great’) Deutsches Symphonie – Orchester Berlin, Kent Nagano, Thomas Quasthoff (ME)


A somewhat larger audience than Tuesday’s turned out to hear Nagano and Quasthoff give their versions of Mahler’s most tragic song cycle and what is arguably Schubert’s best loved symphony. You have to be made of stern stuff not to be moved by the circumstances surrounding ‘Kindertotenlieder;’ the poems set by Mahler are only a fraction of the 428 which Ruckert wrote about the deaths of two of his children, one of those set having actually been written the morning after the child’s demise, and as for Mahler himself, his beloved eldest daughter died two years after the work was completed, after which the composer could not bring himself to study or conduct it. The work contains many of the elements which those who love Mahler most admire, and which those who loathe him most deprecate; raw personal feeling, almost too-vivid word – setting, intensely pictorial use of the orchestra, and above all that sense of sweeping emotion which either sends you swooning or reaching for the remote.

In this performance, surprisingly, it was the orchestra which provided the most unalloyed pleasure; I must have heard this work at least thirty times in concert, quite apart from all the recordings, and I have never previously heard such exact, fluent, sweetly phrased renditions of the orchestral parts of it; Nagano guided the strings, in particular, in playing of exceptional tenderness, delicacy and tremulous emotion. All of those qualities are ones I would generally associate with Thomas Quasthoff, but on this occasion his singing was not at the level of the orchestra’s playing, and it was truly heartening to see that he recognized the greatness of the support he had been given, acknowledging the players in a very significant way.

Quasthoff’s voice is, of course, very beautiful indeed, and he uses it with great skill, but here I had the impression that he was not really very familiar with the music; I do not say this because he had the score in front of him - he usually does, but barely glances at it – but because he seemed unusually reliant on it, only looking at the audience occasionally. He sang the most inherently moving phrases such as ‘Heil sei dem Freudenlicht der Welt!’ and ‘Sieh’ uns nur an, denn bald sind wir dir ferne!’ with some feeling as well as lovely shaping of the lines, but in general this was not a deeply moving performance.

Michael Kennedy once commented of Fischer-Dieskau’s performance of the second song, in the 1955 recording under Kempe: ‘….. the singing, oh, the singing! In the second song the repeated phrase ‘O Augen’ is sung with a compassionate intensity that tells us all we dare know about this kind of remorse,’ and I can still recall the depth of the emotion I felt when I heard him sing this work. Quasthoff’s could perhaps be regarded as a more muscular interpretation; certainly his singing of the first four stanzas of the final song was stripped of any sentimentality, ‘I could say nothing’ being more enraged than regretful, and his final ‘In diesem Wetter……..’ was touching rather than engulfing. As valid an interpretation as any other, one might say, especially since this is a work which confronts us with such raw emotions.

Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major symphony is not such a divisive piece; most music lovers would agree that its place amongst the great works is secure, and Nagano here directed a performance remarkable for its verve, crispness of articulation and sheer musical excitement. Solti once remarked that the playing of this symphony should show ‘precision and gentleness achieved simultaneously,’ and this was exactly what was shown here. It puzzles me that this conductor is regarded as bloodless and clinical in some quarters; it’s true that his intellectual qualities predominate, especially in terms of tempi and structure, but the sound he obtains from the orchestra, and the obvious rapport he has with the players are both remarkable. He directed a performance of unassuming grandeur, ‘Schubertian’ in the best sense, and he drew playing of exceptional finesse from every section of the orchestra; in the Scherzo, the strings sparkled and the wind instruments made as mellow a sound as I have ever heard in this work.

In the Finale, the standard of playing was simply superb; that wonderful melody was never once over-phrased, and the bold, energetic pulse of the music almost convinced you that it was the kind of composition that comes ‘as naturally as the leaves to a tree.’ The conductor and orchestra were given a rapturous reception from a generally most attentive audience, save for one young lady who appeared to be writing her memoirs throughout the performance, energetically and noisily scratching lines out when it pleased her and finally shoving her notebook into her bag with much flapping about; even the pointed glares of Thomas Quasthoff, sitting directly in front of us, were powerless to prevent her display of distracting inattention.


Melanie Eskenazi

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