Quasthoff/Nagano/Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Barbican Hall, London

Bad timing and a mismatched pair get the mood all wrong
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The Independent Culture

Starting only hours after the solemnities of the Queen Mother's funeral, Tuesday's Barbican concert of Mahler and Bruckner – the first of two programmes by the celebrated Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin – was bound to be prone to a distracted atmosphere. The only surprise was how pervasive that distraction proved to be.

Maybe it was the result of clocking up an extra minute's collective silence in a day that had already seen two. (The Barbican, having assumed a mournful stance on behalf of its audience, commanded this expression of respect at the start of the programme.) Maybe it was the prospect of hearing such a lustful, urgent and energetic song-cycle – Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – after a day absorbed in matters moribund? Maybe it was fear of how lumpy the rarely-performed original version of Bruckner's Third Symphony – the one he spent 16 years improving – might be? Or maybe – for those of us with both a smattering of German and a lifetime's residence in a country obsessed by royalty – it was the inadvertent irony of their opening, additional song; Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen from Mahler's Rückert-Lieder.

"...Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen" sang Thomas Quasthoff wistfully, after a brief announcement by a functionary, dedicating the song's performance to the late Queen Mum and offering a distinctly partial translation of its overall message of withdrawal and distance. "[The world] has heard nothing of me for so long". Oh really?

Whether music should offer solace, analysis, catharsis or escape at times of private or public sadness is too complex a question to address here. Less complex is the question of whether audiences should feel co-opted into expressing an emotion that they might not share. Twice. Surely it's either a silence or an addition? And shouldn't an optimally excellent performance of the scheduled music take priority? Suffice to say that in this case, both those who were affected by and those who were indifferent to the death of the Queen Mother were wrong-footed. Pity the poor bloke on the other side of the auditorium – I couldn't see whether it was a him but the hands sounded big – who so loved Quasthoff's account of Ich bin der Welt that he started clapping over the final liquescent cadence. (The consequent glares from those around him were, if anything, louder.) How could he know that we were now officially in a different place? How could he judge whether the initial silence was supposed to extend past that song? It did, and the rhythm and tone of the performance were unhinged.

Rhythm and tone remained problematic throughout the scheduled song-cycle. Quasthoff's air of rough-hewn emotionality clashed uncomfortably with conductor Kent Nagano's studiously shimmering symphonic expansiveness. Both interpretations work, but not concurrently. Quasthoff's minutely responsive flickers of pace and tone seem, on this performance, better suited to the intimacy of piano accompaniment (only the bass register of his bass-baritone voice adapted successfully to the lush orchestral habitat). Where he shifts to the mood of each word, Nagano carves a wider harmonic and dramatic scheme. Where Quasthoff highlights vulnerability – some of it technical, unfortunately – Nagano highlights transcendence. And though you could argue that Quasthoff's approach is true to the text, Nagano's is more true to the score.

Regardless of how immediate or expansive you believe Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen to be, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester must be lovely to sing with. It's a strongly Middle European sonority; defined, refined, dark, liquid, herbal. Heard blind you'd imagine they hailed from Budapest, and all I can say is lucky Berlin to have such a remarkable alternative to the Philharmonic's icy brilliance. Their woodwind sound was so wetly sensual in the Mahler that it seemed they were playing down a third. Alas, not even they could make Bruckner's endless chromatic flute-led re-statements of his already dull themes – the phrase banging one's head against a brick wall comes to mind – sound juicy enough to merit attention. I went back home to listen to the final version of this symphony again and can't say I liked it any better. An unsettled, distracted experience all round then, whether from (early) Bruckner's stolidity, the collective emotional mood, or an unhappy mismatch of singer and conductor.