sat 13/07/2024

Smith, Wyn-Rogers, Philharmonia, Pons, RFH | reviews, news & interviews

Smith, Wyn-Rogers, Philharmonia, Pons, RFH

Smith, Wyn-Rogers, Philharmonia, Pons, RFH

Stand-in singer elevates Mahler, but Schubert disappoints

Catherine Wyn-Rogers: palpable expressive intensityPeter Foster-Williams

The Philharmonia’s Sunday concert wasn’t quite the event they’d planned. Christoph von Dohnányi scored a hit last season with Schubert's Ninth Symphony, so his reading of the Eighth seemed an ideal way to begin. But Dohnányi withdrew early on, leaving the work in the less inspiring hands of Josep Pons.

The second half was devoted to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, with the star pairing of Robert Dean Smith and Matthias Goerne. But Goerne too pulled out, and at very short notice. Fortunately, Catherine Wyn-Rogers proved a worthy stand-in, and Pons found his stride, making the second half more of a success.

The concert ended with a near-perfect reading of the last song

Pons was at a disadvantage in the Schubert for the inevitable comparisons with Dohnányi’s compelling Ninth. Both conductors take an expansive and lyrical approach to late Schubert, but Dohnányi retains a sense of Classical-era discipline, with elegantly sculpted phrases and focussed climaxes. Pons gives the same sense of breadth, but without that incisive edge. Some poor ensemble in the strings at the opening may not have been down to him, but it set the tone for a performance that felt baggy and directionless.

The climaxes suffered most, approached with little sense of dramatic pacing, and then sprawling when reached. But there were several potentially redeeming features. In the quieter passages, Pons often achieved a real sense of atmosphere, especially with the lower strings in the development of the first movement. And the woodwind soloists all shone – in the Mahler too – clarinettist Nicholas Rodwell particularly convincing in both works.

In the absence of Matthias Goerne, Das Lied was presented with the more conventional pairing of tenor and mezzo. Both Robert Dean Smith (pictured below, by Todd Smith) and Catherine Wyn-Rogers are seasoned Wagnerians, so have the stamina and expressive vocabulary that Mahler calls for in these demanding roles. Smith has the steely, focussed tone to carry over the huge orchestra, as well as a fairly secure upper register and excellent German diction. He is still fresh-faced, but his voice is no longer young, and, although he has the support to carry to the ends of the many long, high phrases, his tonal control, and his tuning as well, sometimes suffer. But there is no point in expecting perfection, the sheer physical demands here are too great, and Smith comes closer than most to that impossible ideal.

He wasn’t helped in the opening song by Pons’s slow and wayward tempos, prolonging those extended cadences in often unpredictable ways. Catherine Wyn-Rogers also struggled to synchronise, especially in the faster passages of the "Von der Schönheit". But otherwise, she was on top form throughout, and, apart from reading from a score (Smith sang from memory), was at no obvious disadvantage for her last-minute drafting.

Like Smith, Wyn-Rogers sings this music with elegance and with an innate feeling for the German Lieder tradition from which it comes. Although there was much to criticise earlier in the evening, the concert ended in fine form with a near-perfect reading of the last song, "Der Abschied". Clear articulation from Wyn-Rogers allowed every word to come across, each conveyed with palpable expressive intensity. Pons continued to produce widely varying tempos, but here they cohered to a more logical pacing, and a more sympathetic support for the singer.

But best of all were the woodwind soloists, stealing the limelight as in the Schubert. As the plaintive motif drifted around the section, visiting the oboe, the cor anglais, bass clarinet (and the solo violin too), the sheer elegance of these solos, each as fine as the last, made for a moving conclusion – and fortunately the most memorable part of a decidedly mixed performance.


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