Saturday, 3 August 2019

Prom 18: early Britten and late Mahler from Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

BBC Proms- Prom 18 - Edward Gardner, Stuart Skelton, BBC Symphony Orchestra (Photo  BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
BBC Proms- Prom 18 - Edward Gardner, Claudia Mahnke, Stuart Skelton, BBC Symphony Orchestra
(Photo  BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Britten Piano Concerto, Gustav Mahler Das Lied von der Erde; Leif Ove Andsnes, Stuart Skelton, Claudia Mahnke, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 August 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Britten's dazzling early concerto contrasting with the darkness and melancholy of Mahler's late song cycle

Benjamin Britten’s early, brilliant Piano Concerto and Gustav Mahler’s late symphonic song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde might seem strange concert partners, but there are links between the two works. Both have an uncertainty of form, Britten’s concerto is almost a suite, whilst Mahler’s song-cycle is effectively a symphony. Also, both works were introduced into the UK by Sir Henry Wood. It is this latter connection which drew Britten’s Piano Concerto and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde into Thursday night’s Prom as part of this year’s celebration the 150th anniversary of Sir Henry Wood’s birth.

For Prom 18, Edward Gardner conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Leif Ove Andsnes as the soloist in Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto, and tenor Stuart Skelton and mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke as soloists in Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

Sir Henry Wood commissioned Britten’s Piano Concerto in 1938 when the young composer (not yet 25) took the solo part at the work’s premiere at the Proms. It received a mixed reception, and in 1946 Britten introduced a revised version, which was that performed at tonight’s Prom. Leif Ove Andsnes made his Proms debut with the work in 1992.

The concerto is notable for the brilliance of the piano writing, and the sense of sardonic wit which flashes through the work particularly in the orchestra. Britten gave each movement a title, ‘Toccata’, ‘Waltz’, ‘Impromptu’, ‘March’.

For the ‘Toccata’ the brilliant piano part pits the soloist against the more sardonic orchestra. Edward Gardner drew some vivid playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Leif Ove Andsnes countered with contained virtuosity. The balance between piano and orchestra was not always ideal, and Andsnes seemed to want to show that there was more to the concerto than mere showy pianism. The second movement ‘Waltz’ started with a haunting and haunted theme in the orchestra, whilst the piano’s initial entry seemed to veer dangerously close to the café! That said, as this movement progressed, veering between the serious and the sardonic, I felt I wanted Andsnes to have a bit more fun. The ‘Impromptu’ started with a beautifully simply piano chorale, and it was the bitter-sweet nature of this which both orchestra and soloist developed. The final ‘March’ was described in the Proms programme book as bringing a military threat, but initially Edward Gardner and the orchestra made it feel more engaging, though a creepy sense of threat came in only to be brushed away by the sparkling wit of the solo part.

Britten’s Piano Concerto is perhaps not as well known as his Violin Concerto, but here Leif Ove Andsnes, Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra made a strong case for the work, though I wished Andsnes playing had had a more demonstrative sense of fun. After all, this is the work of a young man.

Following the interval, the mood changed for Mahler’s late song cycle. Completed just under 30 years before Britten’s concerto, there is a world (and a world war) between them. Mahler writes for a large orchestra, but what was noticeable about Edward Gardner’s performance was the way things easily evaporated to just a few instruments. There was a transparency and sense of fine detail in the orchestra, a feeling of control that was almost classical for all the intense moments of high emotion.

The orchestral playing in ‘Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde’ had a brilliance to it which at times threatened to over-balance Stuart Skelton’s exuberant performance, which in later verses became wonderfully trenchant. The dark hues of Skelton’s voice suit the piece, though perhaps a brighter, more forward placed voice would have carried better over the orchestra. After a touching orchestra introduction to ‘Der Einsame in Herbst’, Claudia Mahnke had a lovely way of handling the exposed first entry. Mahnke took quite a straight, direct approach to the music, letting it speak for itself without the emotionalism of the performances I have been typically used to. Whilst she shaped the phrases expressively, her diction as somewhat occluded and we had difficulty following the words even with the printed crib. ‘Von der Jugend’ was light and perky, with Skelton taking engaging delight in the story-telling element here. There was a lively transparency in the orchestra in ‘Von der Schönheit’, though Mahnke’s performance felt a bit over careful, and in the latter sections she never quite matched the vibrancy and passion of the orchestral playing, making rather a sober interpretation. ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ started in lively fashion, albeit with moments of tenderness. Skelton was wonderfully involved in the story again, and we began to appreciate the sheer tirelessness of his performance. It is a long time since I have heard a tenor so apparently at east in Mahler’s often cruel tenor writing.

‘Der Abschied’ saw Mahnke finely controlled and quite straight in her phrasing, her understatement making the piece all the more moving. Gardner and the orchestra brought a lovely spaciousness to the long orchestral section before the final stanzas, though again this was not as overtly emotional as some performances. Mahnke brought moments of real intensity and a great sense of joy to the closing verses, with a touching fading away in ‘Ewig… ewig…’ This was a controlled, moving performance, but one which kept extreme emotions in check somewhat, so that it lacked the great sense of catharsis that some performers bring to the piece.

This Prom is on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

This review also appears on OperaToday.com

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