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Seen and Heard Prom Review


Prom 57: Berio, Mahler; Andreas Schmidt (bar), Yvonne Naef (mezzo). Anthony Dean Griffey (ten); London Voices; Orchestra de Paris, Christoph Eschenbach (con); Royal Albert Hall, 28th August, 2004 (AR)


This concert consisted of swan songs by two composers who died not long after completing their compositions: Mahler was diagnosed with a fatal heart condition and given a few years to live just after writing Das Lied von der Erde and Berio died two weeks after finishing his Stanze, which opened the evening.


Stanze means 'rooms', and each of the five rooms 'contains' a poem with its own unique sound world. The rooms are linked by disparate ideas of God and Death. Of the five poems, the first by Paul Celan, and the last by Dan Pagis, confront holocaust horrors.

Baritone Andreas Schmidt's monotone murmurings worked well blending in with the three groups of male voices and the orchestral 'voices'. This gave the sensation of orchestra and voices becoming an echo and a ghost haunting the baritone.


Berio has constructed an intricate, complex network of interconnected, integrated sounds where voices become instruments and the instruments become voices. The soloist and male voices become transmuted into sound sensations echoing the 'voices' of the instrumentalists. The words of the poems thus become pure sound sensations devoid of meaning and textual narrative. Berio's exotic and economic orchestration had a haunting and mesmerising intensity that had an hypnotic effect, holding the audience spellbound. A simple phrase from Paul Celan's poem Tenebrae summed up this performance perfectly: "It gleamed."


Christoph Eschenbach's rigorous and dramatic conducting moulded his superlative forces to play with panache and style: the London Voices were vigorous and incisive and the Orchestra de Paris played with exuberance.


Like Berio's Stanze, Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde defies easy categorisation: it is neither a symphony nor an oratorio. Interestingly Das Lied, unlike Stanze, is an extraordinarily optimistic work concerned with questions about what death may bring us echoing Nietzsche's doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence.


With five short movements and a concluding colossal movement (almost the length of the first five put together) many find this work unbalanced and arbitrarily conceived. Even Mahlerians find this score problematic and thus this hybrid score is far more difficult to pull off than other Mahler works.

The opening horns were joyous and full bloomed. In Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey was lively and impassioned, with perfect control and pitch. The Swiss mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef had an unusual combination of dramatic intensity and distilled lyricism in Der Einsame im Herbst with pointed woodwind and lush strings blending beautifully with her. Eschenbach's tempi were measured and broad allowing an astonishing array of orchestral colour and detail to shine through. Throughout, the individual characterisation of the woodwind solos were both exotically perfumed and extraordinarily poignant.


The last movement, the monumental Der Abschied strikingly recalled Stanze where the vocalist, rather than being a foreground, isolated soloist, becomes integrated with, but never subsumed by, the 'vocal' instrumentalists (most notably the woodwind.) Thus, Naef was a singing member of the orchestra, her serene vocal instrument blending perfectly with theirs. One had the feeling that the woodwind were actually singing with the soloist. Her repetition of the final word 'eternally' in particular was deeply moving as it became softer and softer, shading into nothingness. The Orchestra de Paris were in their element here producing haunting, murmuring, dark sounds with appropriately grainy cellos' and double basses and pointed woodwind.


Christoph Eshenbach's reading of Das Lied was the finest performance I have heard of this work in concert: this was a paradigm Mahler performance with soloists, conductor and orchestra totally unified in their vision. A highly musical and memorable evening and thankfully broadcast on BBC 2 television for posterity.


Alex Russell



Further Listening


MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde; Julius Patzak, tenor

Kathleen Ferrier, contralto Bruno Walter conducts Vienna Philharmonic: TAHRA TAH 482 61:11 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi)




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