The concert opened with Mahler’s aforementioned Piano Quartet in A Minor, featuring a handful of players of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera and led by Mr. Pappano on the piano. Mahler’s work is a curious piece, redolent of its period and the German romantic models of Schumann and, most audibly, Brahms. Yet though obviously an early work, one may glimpse in its development hints of the powerful, complicated music Mahler was later to pen; A minor was to become the key of the so-called ‘Tragic’ Sixth Symphony, and there is an undertone of longing that suffuses the whole of the quartet. The colour of the piece was brought out by the nuance of Mr. Pappano’s playing, glaring and violent when necessary, but deftly transitioning to the soaring yet achingly tender melodies so indicative of the works of Mahler that were yet to come. Here and throughout the performance, Mr. Pappano guided his orchestra with an admirable cohesiveness; these players simply work well with one another, and Mr. Pappano led with a sure hand. He achieved a particular synchronicity with Concertmaster Vasko Vassilev, whose violin flared as a passionate counterpoint to Mr. Pappano’s playing. The quartet develops toward more modern, Lisztian influences as it progresses, serving as a straightforward but potent antecedent to Mahler’s later development, pungently granted voice here in the chamber version of Das Lied von der Erde which ended the concert.
Placed deftly between the two Mahler pieces was a gorgeous rendition of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. The Idyll, taking its foundation in the love scene from Act III of Siegfried, is one of the great moments of tenderness in Wagner’s oeuvre. He presented it to his wife Cosima on Christmas morning in 1870, a heartfelt tribute to the season, her birthday, and the birth the previous year of their only son, Siegfried; she recalled being awakened by the delicate threads of its melodies ‘as though in a dream’. Cosima’s description was lovingly brought to mind by the serene wistfulness of the orchestra, the radiant legato playing of the strings at the start setting the tone for the rest. Though I can prefer slightly more tension in the work, Mr. Pappano sculpted its flowing phrases with a meticulous care and sensitivity. Mr. Vassilev again played magnificently, lovingly granting life to the gossamer textures of Siegfried’s lullaby. The splendor of nature was playfully suggested by superb playing by clarinet and flute, the horn providing a restrained hint at Wagnerian grandeur. It was by any account a sterling performance, as lushly romantic as one could hope to hear. To those who believe Wagner synonymous only with bombast and noise, Mr. Pappano and his orchestra offered a poignant riposte.
The evening concluded with its focal point, a chamber version of Mahler’s vocal symphony, Das Lied von der Erde. Mahler wrote the work in 1907, superstitiously attempting to forestall the writing of his ninth symphony—Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner had all failed to live to create beyond their ninth—with a six-movement ‘symphony with voices’ to follow his Eighth. The result is both exceptional in the symphony repertoire and unusually compelling, a full performance overwhelming in its orchestral and vocal force. The intimate setting of Cadogan Hall does not lend itself to the grand orchestral requirements of the piece, yet it proved utterly perfect for the chamber version compiled by Arnold Schoenberg and completed by Rainer Riehn. The version was intended for Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna, founded by the composer in 1918 with the intention of presenting chamber music renditions of largely unfamiliar works to new audiences. The pared down version of Das Lied von der Erde is a work of genius, reducing the musical requirements of the piece to far more manageable proportions, presenting a more intimate experience while miraculously preserving the complicated orchestral textures and brilliant shadings of Mahler’s full vocal symphony.
This was borne out in this evening’s performance, Mr. Pappano and his orchestra once again on top form. They were joined by tenor Klaus Florian Vogt and baritone Thomas Hampson. Mr. Vogt owns a robust and golden heldentenor voice that was well served by the smaller scale of Schoenberg’s chamber version, allowing the beauty of his singing to be appreciated over the forces of the orchestra, so easily overpowering in a full scale performance. He acquitted himself especially well in the first movement drinking song, ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’, his voice spreading over the orchestra gloriously; his tone also proved agile and pleasant in the third movement’s ‘Von der Jugend’.
Though the tenor is typically supported by an alto, Mahler made provision for the replacement by a baritone soloist instead. On this occasion, the opportunity to hear Mr. Hampson in the role made the exchange worthwhile. The general tone of the songs is markedly changed when they are undertaken by two male soloists, and the contrast between the female alto and the male tenor is typically one that I prefer. In this case, the subtlety and refinement of Mr. Hampson’s singing made one thankful for the change; his first song, the forlorn second movement’s ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’, was conveyed with the artist’s usual intelligence and vocal poise. His phrasing was magnificent, coloured by heartfelt emotion and immaculate diction. He came most into his own in the final movement, ‘Der Abschied’ the culminating point of the work. In no other passage was its elegiac beauty more potently expressed; Mr. Pappano drew slow, luscious playing from the orchestra, the oboe offering a mournful introduction. The flute, beautifully played, offered gentle consolation, the piano, horns, and strings combining to carry through the otherworldly grandeur of Mahler’s music. This was acutely expressed given the greater intimacy of Schoenberg’s chamber orchestration; the overall sound is less overwhelming, yet its threads of colour emerge all the more poignantly, Mr. Hampson’s singing all the more affecting. His upper register proved consistently strong, teeming with all the feeling the bittersweet movement ought to conjure. For a work that has been so pared down, the performance plumbed a tremendous depth of emotion.
The culminating two stanzas were stunningly conveyed, the orchestra slowed down to near immobility, subdued longing infusing Mr. Hampson’s final phrases. His final cries of ‘Ewig…ewig…’ were uttered at no more than the barest whisper, the final embers of Mr. Pappano’s orchestra slowly burning out behind him. A moment’s hushed pause saw Cadogan Hall filled with rapturous applause. It was well deserved.
John E. de Wald