Full-frontal Mahler at St.Andrew’s

MAHLER – Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn)

Linden Loader (mezzo-soprano) / Roger Wilson (baritone)

Terence Dennis (piano)

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace Season of Concerts 2010

Friday 19th March

No composer is more identified with song as integral to his output than Gustav Mahler. The creator of a number of vast symphonic edifices, he worked into most of these compositions either direct quotations from his own songs or melodies derived from them. His Eighth Symphony is, in essence a choral symphony, and his orchestral song-cycle Das Lied Von Der Erde he regarded as a symphony in all but name.

Mahler grew up in the garrison town of Jihlava, in Moravia, a region steeped in folksong, and a place which would have frequently rung with the sounds of military marches, the boy’s enthusiasm for these tunes probably accounting for the prominence of such melodies and forms in his instrumental works up to the Eighth Symphony. His forty or so songs include no less than twenty-one settings of verses from a German folk-collection of verses entitled Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), an anthology which first appeared in 1805, with two further volumes following. These poems, collected by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Bretano, include a colourful variety of themes, topics and characters, both religious and secular, all displaying an engagingly simple but deeply direct set of fireside-wisdoms.

Mahler first set some of these verses in 1883 for a collection entitled Lieder und Gesange; but better-known are the twelve settings which make up the composer’s “Wunderhornlieder”, and which we know indeed as Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The use of orchestral accompaniment brought out Mahler’s skill at fashioning chamber-like instrumental sonorities, often using single lines or small groups for colouristic effect, though the expediences of publication and performance saw Mahler write piano versions of the accompaniment as well.

To have the whole set performed live would be, I think, a rare treat anywhere; and singers Linden Loader and Roger Wilson along with pianist Terence Dennis threw themselves into the humour, tragedy, irony, drollery, foolishness and romance of the different settings with plenty of feeling and gusto. The theatricality of some of the duets brought out a ready response from Roger Wilson, putting his extensive operatic experience and vocal acting skills to good use with some vivid characterisations. If somewhat less outwardly demonstrative and spectacular in her character portrayals, Linden Loader’s beautiful voice made the perfect foil for her partner in their duets, such as in the opening Der Schildwache Nachtlied, a dialogue between a soldier and a beautiful ghostly temptress. And she nicely caught the cocquettishness of the girl in Trost im Unglück, a song abut a hussar and his recalcitrant sweetheart, one in which the singers played the contrasts off each other deliciously. For me, the “plum” of the duets is Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, a song whose music is filled with eerily-charged beauty and deep regret, depicting an encounter between a girl and her dead lover – both singers here characterising their parts with the utmost feeling, and Terence Dennis’s piano-playing getting everything right, from the ghostly trumpet calls near the beginning to the flashes of anguish transfixing the girl’s vocal line, and the beautiful transitions between the warmly romantic music in 3/4 time and the spectral reveille-calls of wind and brass. Elsewhere, perhaps Roger Wilson’s extremely boorish lad in Verlor’ne Müh might have been thought by some too dunderheaded to be a credible object of a young girl’s attention; but I enjoyed it immensely.

The individual songs were no less finely done by each singer. Again, Roger Wilson pointed the words of Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt with obvious enjoyment, relishing the irony of the fishes’ pragmatic response to St Anthony’s sermonisings, and later, turning his gift for comic irony towards creatures of a different kind in Lob des hohen Verstandes, bringing off the brayings of a donkey most beautifully. He was suppported to the utmost by Terence Dennis, whose playing nicely underpinned the garrulousness of the saint’s preachings (a fiendishly difficult “perpetuum mobile” piano-part), as well as pointing all the fun and pomposity of the animals’ pronouncements in the latter song. And Linden Loader caught our sympathies all too heart-rendingly on behalf of both mother and child, in the tragic Das Irdische Leben, but then in due course restored equanimities with a charming, nicely-related Rheinlegendchen, the music lovely, lilting and lyrical (the performance surviving the all-too-audible and out-of-rhythm tappings of a nearby workman!).

Performing Revelge, the longest song of the set last of all in the concert naturally threw weight onto the darker, more serious side of the collection – the piece describes a post-battle parade of ghost-soldiers, with music that’s mostly funeral-march in character, but filled with sardonic, mock-heroic gestures as well as grim finalities. I thought Roger Wilson and Terence Dennis gave the piece such vivid, in-your-face treatment that anything that followed afterwards would have seemed impossibly pale and wan. The singer’s repeated cries of “Tra-la-li” at regular intervals seemed, if anything, to increase in energy and desperation as the song marched grimly onwards, with the piano-playing at times practically orchestral in its amplitude and colour, resolutely supporting the singer to the bitter end. For some tastes, perhaps, a little TOO over-the-top – but not for mine! Any music written by a man who, upon visiting Niagara Falls, exclaimed “At last – fortissimo!” cries out for the kind of full-blooded performances which we certainly got during this splendid concert.

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