As if the line of succession between Schubert and Mahler were not plain enough, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich had the Argentina-born composer Osvaldo Golijov illuminate the connections in his beautifully imagined orchestration of four Schubert songs She Was Here.
“She” was Dawn Upshaw and Golijov’s highly personalised perspective on the songs seemed to hearken back to the lowering introduction of Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture, which began the concert, and forward to Mahler’s Fourth Symphony which concluded it.
But most importantly She Was Here inhabited its own quiet unreachable place deep in the longing for peace and finality linking the four chosen songs. Golijov makes of them one sensuous stream of consciousness with spacious and evocative (and highly Mahlerian) use of horns and rustling celeste, harp and strings in the nocturnal forest of the wanderer’s solitude. It is here that dreams are realised and farewells anticipated. Golijov even has the clarinet and harp allude to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (“Song of the Earth”) as if to further accentuate this oneness with nature. Such intimacies, set largely in the middle and lower reaches of the voice, are almost too personal to be shared with a hall this size and I suspect that even Dawn Upshaw’s clear tracing of words will only have made an impression on those of us close enough to be drawn into her confidence. Sometimes the Royal Albert Hall can be truly frustrating place.
It will certainly of robbed great swathes of the audience of Upshaw’s tomboyish charm in “Das himmlische Leben”, the knowingly gauche view of heavenly life which wraps up the Fourth Symphony. Words always come first in dictating Upshaw’s highly personal sound and here she caught the playfulness of the text without the cuteness.
Actually, David Zinman, the conductor, might have been more mindful of her “angel with the grubby face”. His Mahler – pristine in the extreme – is never grubby enough. Admittedly the bucolic charms of the Fourth Symphony lend themselves more readily to Zinman’s translucent way with texturing and the delectable “turn” on the Schubertian first subject, to say nothing of the inviting cellos in the second, showed the Zurich Orchestra’s prowess. There was a naturalness and ease about the playing with much sweetness in the downiest soft playing.
But where were the sinister half-lights of the death-stalked second movement or the anxieties of over-reaching violins in the third? Beautiful, yes, but only two-thirds of the story.