tue 20/08/2019

Prom 18: Andsnes, Mahnke, Skelton, BBCSO, Gardner review – all passion spent | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 18: Andsnes, Mahnke, Skelton, BBCSO, Gardner review – all passion spent

Prom 18: Andsnes, Mahnke, Skelton, BBCSO, Gardner review – all passion spent

Hall, singers, conductor and musicians lend special eloquence to Mahler’s song of farewell

From left, Claudia Mahnke, Edward Gardner and Stuart Skelton in Mahler's songs of drunken and dignified goodbyesAll image © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

It’s a curiosity of music that a performance can occasionally be better – more persuasive and impressive – than the work itself. Even Britten’s most devoted advocates would find it hard to rank the Piano Concerto among his masterpieces. In his account at the BBC Proms last night, however, Leif Ove Andsnes carved out a niche for the piece as a confident yet quizzical response to the genre, standing diffidently to one side.

Yes, the opening Toccata sounded more than ever like fluent but second-hand Prokofiev; the following wrong-note waltz limped along as a poor cousin to the Spanish-accented Violin Concerto; the Impromptu took on the Concerto Slow Movement exemplars of Beethoven and Brahms before wistfully fading from the fray; the finale’s march theme vacillated between a homage and a parody to the cheery kind of whistle-while-you-work mood-boosters pumping out of wireless sets across 1930s England while Britten was writing the piece.

But so what? There’s always a double edge to Britten’s music, and Andsnes (pictured below) laid emphasis on a kind of tightly laced, fretful insouciance to the solo writing which is never wholly supported or opposed by the orchestra. The cool authority of his Mozart and Beethoven inflected his stylish dispatch of the Toccata’s endless semiquaver runs, which formed a mere prelude to the movement’s masterstroke, the slower recasting of the violent main theme as a glinting nocturne. Here, not for the first or the last time, Britten finds tenderness in cruelty.

Leif Ove Andsnes plays Britten at the 2019 BBC Proms

It takes a special tenor to do the same for the opening song of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, but Stuart Skelton was the man for the moment. This was the third time within the year that he had sung the cycle in London – and the second with the BBC Symphony Orchestra – but a combination of the Royal Albert Hall’s quixotic acoustic, and the exceptionally sympathetic support of Gardner and the orchestra, released from him a much more nuanced perspective on the carpe diem text. Without recourse to Colin Matthews’ reorchestration, Gardner had evidently done a thorough job of thinning and refining Mahler’s unforgiving score so that the song’s drunken poet gained a certain heroic dignity and defiant pride in his tirade against life’s transience.

Self-pity, too, was entirely banished from Claudia Mahnke’s account of “The Lonely One in Autumn”. Gardner shaded the strings to wrap her voice in faded tissue paper, and Tom Blomfield accompanied her solitude with an obbligato oboe of extraordinary, broken eloquence. He, too, took a starring role in the long adieu, but not before Skelton and Gardner had reinvented the third song’s artful Chinoiserie with a rare delicacy of expression, so unlike the tenor-in-a-teacup we habitually encounter.

Back to that farewell: greater experience of the hall might have encouraged Mahnke to trust her projection more – she and Gardner had ensured that every word of even the fourth song’s wild horses came over – but the nobility of her declamation in the wake of the song’s central funeral march made its own, unforgettable effect, and her final musings of “Ewig” really did dissolve into sweet air, accompanied by a Debussyan deliquesence of orchestral texture. On this form, LPO audiences are in for a treat when Gardner takes charge.

@peterquantrill

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