When the Philharmonia's triptych of Mahler song cycles with Esa-Pekka Salonen was planned, both parties would have expected the performances to coincide with the announcement of his appointment as the orchestra's next Chief Conductor. With each cycle preceded by one of Haydn's early Esterhazy symphonies, and followed by a post-Romantic great, what do they tell us about him? First, that he is fundamentally serious. (For all the dazzle of Le Matin and fleeting merriment of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht is a harrowing work, while the coupling of Kindertotenlieder with Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen is unremittingly painful.) Second, that he is a pragmatist, offering Haydn as an amuse-gueule. Third, that his experience with the Tristan Project in Los Angeles and Paris has honed his skill in controlling minute alterations of balance.
Last Tuesday, dusk fell on Esterhazy and Matthias Goerne sang the five Mahler songs that have come to be known as the Rückert-Lieder. If Salonen has matured as an accompanist, Goerne has grown as a singer, with a new warmth of tone to bolster his intense response to poetry. Salonen's immaculate balance of the creeping violin figures and delicate oboe solo of "Ich atmet' einen linden Duft" allowed Goerne to communicate Rückert's text gently, and, in the swung rhythms of "Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder", to float his light, tenorial top-notes in a relaxed, almost playful fashion.
Previously an awkward stage presence, Goerne seems happier in his skin, though he still tilts forward with each phrase as though checking the felts of an invisible upright piano. I know nothing about his private life, but he sang "Liebst du um Schönheit" like a man in love, smoothly linking this confident declaration to the tranquillity of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen". Here, too, Salonen's balancing was meticulous, with delectable pianissimi from the low strings, perfectly placed points of colour from the harp, and exquisite chording from the musky blend of high bassoons and lyrical clarinet. (It is interesting that a composer notable for the menace he invests in this instrument should have used it so lovingly in the song he described as "my very self".) That Salonen paused before the graveyard terrors of "Um Mitternacht" was further evidence of good judgement.
It would be trite to describe Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste as a walk in the park after the Rückert-Lieder . But give or take some disparities in the frenzied pizzicato, this was again a confident performance, and one that seemed also, in the inexorable crescendo of the Andante fugue and the crepuscular stirrings of the Adagio, to have benefited from the Tristan Project. This work can be read as a hymn to the colour grey, with variously blue, brow and gold tints to its tones of charcoal, pewter, stone and silver. Here, it was also a hymn to the inimitable bloom of the Philharmonia's strings.
Had Salonen invested as much thought in Le Soir this would have been a near-perfect concert. But despite the witty and elegant solos of James Clark (violin), David Cohen (cello), Kenneth Smith (flute), some ravishing sounds from the horns and bassoon, and double-bassist Neil Tarlton's chuckling cadenza in the Trio of the Minuet, the symphony was under-articulated and glib, with little sense of wonder at the sheer vivacity of the scoring. Handicapped by a seating arrangement that made Elizabeth Burley's fortepiano inaudible, this was no more than a casual nod to pre-Romantic music. It's common enough to confuse happiness with a lack of seriousness but plain wrong to do so in this seriously happy symphony.
I had hoped to get through this week without covering any seasonal music, but the opportunity of hearing Bach's Mass in F performed by I Fagiolini, director Robert Hollingworth and the Academy of Ancient Music was too good to miss. Thought to have been written for the feast of Epiphany, the Mass is a delicious miniature, with a solemn "Kyrie" not dissimilar to the second "Kyrie" of the B minor Mass, a dancing "Gloria" with kamikaze semiquaver flourishes for the two horns, a plangent G minor setting of the Qui tollis for soprano and oboe (Carys Lane and Frank de Bruine), and a closing chorus that echoes the ecstatic melody of Cantata 65, Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen.
Though I Fagiolini is less obviously suited to Bach than to the rich emotionalism of Monteverdi, the freshness and immediacy of the group's blend was mouthwatering in JC Bach's Lieber Herr Gott, the Adrian Williams's Howellsian Christmas Chorale, and the chorales of Cantata 65 and Cantata 63, "Christen, ätzet diesen Tag". Their diction and phrasing was peerless, and though I didn't understand why the fugal entries were divided like a box of Quality Street among an ever-changing combination of solo voices, or why they used a theorbo in liturgical music, this was a warm and characterful performance. AAM played magnificently, as ever, with reliably sensitive and intelligent work from continuo cellist Joseph Crouch.Reuse content