Friday 12 November 2021

Intimate and intense: Mahler with just voice and piano, Alice Coote, Stuart Jackson and Julius Drake at Temple Song

Gustav Mahler (etching by Emil Orlik, 1902)
Gustav Mahler (etching by Emil Orlik, 1902)
Songs of Life and Death
- Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Rückert-Lieder, extracts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn & Das Lied von der Erde.; Alice Coote, Stuart Jackson, Julius Drake; Temple Song at Middle Temple Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 November 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
And evening of Mahler on the piano; without the rich orchestration, these prove performances of remarkable intensity, intimacy and directness

For a concert on Remembrance Day (11 November 2021), Temple Song chose the theme of Songs of Life and Death. At Middle Temple Hall, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, tenor Stuart Jackson and pianist Julius Drake performed a programme of music by Mahler, his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, and Rückert-Lieder plus two songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and 'Der Abschied' from Das Lied von der Erde.

Apart from 'Der Abschied', all the songs in the programme were produced by Mahler in versions for piano and for orchestra ( the piano version of 'Der Abschied' is Mahler's arrangement of the orchestral version). Without Mahler's richly evocative orchestral writing the music can often taken on a greater intimacy and directness. In a survey of recordings of Rückert-Lieder, Richard Wigmore was completely dismissive of the piano version of the songs, yet I find benefits in the greater sense of intimacy, allied to the fact that the singers are performing on a smaller scale. And that was certainly true of this evening, when both Stuart Jackson and Alice Coote brought a remarkable directness and intimacy to their performances, effectively talking to us in song. Apart from 'Der Abschied', everything was done without the benefit of the score, so there was an even greater level of directness.

Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen was written in the mid-1880s, in the wake of an unhappy love affair, but the songs were much revised and in the 1890s Mahler orchestrated them, so their textual history is complex. The words, much influenced by the folk poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn is by Mahler himself. Here they were sung by Stuart Jackson.

'Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht' was serious and almost trenchant, we could feel the anger beneath the sorrow. The speed wasn't fast, and both Jackson and Drake used the time to develop real character. In all four songs, Jackson gave the strong feeling of the protagonist talking directly to us, without ever pushing the music towards operatic scene. This was dramatically characterful song, and whilst the colours in this first one were largely dark, the pastoral episode in the middle was a complete delight. 'Ging heut' Morgen über's Feld' continued the bright characterful nature of the middle section of the first song, with a great sense of story telling but of course, at the end the clouds descend. And 'Ich hab' ein glühend Messer' was vivid indeed, with Jackson spitting out the words; there was anger in both voice and piano. When he talked about heaven, there was a moment of real magic but by the end all was intense anger. Terrific, indeed. The final song, 'Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz' saw our young man tired, leaving everything behind. Haunted at first, the appearance of the linden tree wrought magic in the sound and character, with Jackson's voice on a thread. This was a wonderfully engaged performance, with Jackson and Drake creating real character out of the songs and giving us a strong sense of the journey of this young man (and it was a young man).

Alice Coote brought a more world-weary, perhaps experienced persona to Mahler's Rückert-Lieder. The does not seem to have written the five explicitly as a cycle, though they work brilliantly so, and in fact they were first published as Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (Seven Songs of Latter Days), together with 'Revelge' and 'Der Tamboursg’sell' (on poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn), so the evening's programme made historical as well as emotional sense. Again, there is a somewhat complex textual history, and the final song's orchestral version was created after Mahler's death, yet whilst we enjoy and listen to the piano we can sometimes hear the way Mahler was thinking in terms of an orchestra too.

'Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft' was considered and strongly phrased, the performance was quite contained with a sense of passion remembered yet never underplayed. Throughout the cycle, Coote's performance was about the emotion and the character of the songs rather than gorgeous romantic atmosphere. 'Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder' was intense, with vivid piano playing, with a great feeling of storytelling and, again, character.  'Liebst du um Schönheit' combined directness with a freedom of phrasing and superb attention to the words. For the final section, 'Liebst du um Liebe', Coote and Drake slowed right down and created real magic. 'Um Mitternacht' was haunted, yet with a sense of her holding the emotion tight. It was performed with dark intensity and just moments of great power when Coote opened the voice up, and in each verse she and Drake tightened the screw. Finally, 'Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen' begun on just a thread of voice, as if already the protagonist were hardly there. Whilst Coote was still telling a story, there was the technical beauty of the way she floated phrases and sang on a thread, and the strong emotion of the protagonist's gradual leaving. Pure magic.

After the interval, Stuart Jackson returned for the pair of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Yet the sequence was carefully crafted, and there was a real feeling of narrative to the juxtaposition of the haunted sentinel's song, the drummer boy raising his ghostly comrades and then the complete abandonment of the world in 'Der Abschied' from Das Lied von der Erde, and this was emphasised in the way that Julius Drake played the first notes of the introduction to 'Der Abschied' whilst Stuart Jackson was still on the platform.

We began with 'Der Schildwache Nachtlied' (The sentinel's night song), a curious dialogue between a night watchman and a young woman who appears to him in a vision to tempt him. Jackson and Drake brought strong sense of narrative and personality to the dialogue, differentiating strongly between watchman and vision, the fierce sentinel with a strong sense of fear and the lyrical, haunting vision. 'Revelge' (Reveille) took us on a journey from the drummer boy's anxiousness to do right, at the beginning, yet accompanied by the anger of the piano, through strongly characterised narrative verses to anxiety and beyond with the disturbing intensity of the final verses. 

Das Lied von der Erde was conceived by Mahler as a song cycle with orchestra, or song-symphony, though he did create a piano arrangement. With 'Der Abschied', despite Julius Drake working miracles, we were sometimes aware that we were listening to a piano reduction of an orchestral version, rather than an accompaniment conceived for piano. Yet the result was well worth it, thanks to Drake's profoundly expressive playing, thus making the many piano interludes come alive. There was a starkness to the sound, without the lovely colours of Mahler's orchestra, and this brought Alice Coote's remarkable performance into relief, with her remarkable inhabiting of both music and text.

The opening was strong, intense and direct, with profoundly sculpted phrases, and as the poet discusses nature Coote brought out the mystical, almost sibylline nature of the music, rising to remarkable intensity at the end of this section. The second park was bleak, yet with strong phrases, and the ending was truly remarkable, deeply felt, strong and direct with hardly a trace of self-conscious romanticism. 

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