thu 24/06/2021

Das Lied von der Erde, Kožená, Staples, LSO, Rattle, Barbican online review - more joy than sorrow | reviews, news & interviews

Das Lied von der Erde, Kožená, Staples, LSO, Rattle, Barbican online review - more joy than sorrow

Das Lied von der Erde, Kožená, Staples, LSO, Rattle, Barbican online review - more joy than sorrow

New life around the corner in Mahler’s multi-faceted farewell

Spring torrents: consolation as well as sorrow in Mahler's song-cycle, with Magdalena Kožená, the LSO and Sir Simon RattleAll photos: Mark Allan/LSO/Barbican

The drunkard in spring; the lonely man in autumn; the long goodbye. Mahler’s last song-cycle often seems to embody solitude; a resigned, earthly counterpart to the transcendent rapture of his previous work, the Eighth Symphony, as a superstitious talisman to ward off the finality of a Ninth.

Last night at the Barbican, however, in their first performance back at their much-maligned home, the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle showed a different side to the piece – or rather sides, because this was a performance lit from within by a remarkably full realisation of its place in history.

Less than five years separates Das Lied von der Erde, completed in 1909 but never heard, performed or crucially revised by its composer, from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Such proximity came into unusual focus in the shrill, harsh colours of the opening song. A reduced orchestration was credited to Glen Cortese, though his arrangement uses almost exclusively single instruments per section. Mahler asks for four horns, Cortese rescored for one, and the LSO fielded two, along with an 11-strong first violin section which spilled some way into the Barbican’s stalls area. With perhaps a little help from the microphones, and the hollowed-out orchestral sonority which seems to arise from socially distanced seating, Andrew Staples (pictured below) was never forced to resort to shouting into the void. While muting some of the expressionist horror in the cycle's opening nightmare vision – the howling ape glimpsed in the drunkard’s cups – Staples’ ardent declamation established early on a pervasive sense of the song heritage Mahler inherited from Schumann. Andrew Staples and the LSO at the BarbicanMagdalena Kožená was likewise in fine voice, centred and in command of a tonal range from a thread to, if not a flood, then at least a spring torrent. Her delivery, too, arose from the imperatives of the text, exquisitely restrained at “Ich weine viel” (“I cry a lot”, in the subtitled translation’s demotic) and then rejuvenated with a saucy eye for the handsome boys of the fourth song’s middle section. Both singers struggled now and then with Rattle’s determination to stretch and mould and mine every phrase for nuance, breaking lines or moving ahead of the pulse, but they built a powerful sense of response and rapport through the cycle’s first five songs, which often seem to talk across rather than to each other, so that “The Farewell” unfurled with patiently sustained catharsis.

Staples no less than Kožená succeeded in projecting beyond the Barbican’s empty space, and peeling away the ironised varnish of the faux-Chinois lyrics to reveal an eroticism that in Mahler seems more often sublimated in expressions of religiose ecstasy (never more so than the concluding “Ewig-Weibliche” of the Eighth). In that context, Juliana Koch’s oboe solo to open “Der Abschied” evoked the lonely Shepherd piping away to open the third act of Tristan und Isolde. Rather than Cortese, it seemed to be Mahler paring back the orchestration in order to colour the wan glow of lines such as “A silver barge sails the moon”; not only Stravinsky’s Rite but also Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire lay around the corner of Das Lied von der Erde, and Rattle made sure we couldn’t forget it. In the end, though, such refinements paled beside the stoic power of the finale’s central funeral march, which almost transcended the empty-hall Covid-compliant surroundings and had me pining anew for the real thing, and as soon as possible.

@peterquantrill

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