NZSO and Christiane Libor in wonderful Strauss songs and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart with Christiane Libor (soprano)

Strauss: Four Last Songs
Mahler: Symphony No 4 in G

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 6 August, 7:30 pm

It might have been possible to blame a rival entertainment or the wet and chilly weather for the rather loosely packed audience for a concert that I’d expected to have a ‘full house’ notice at the door. One might also wonder whether it’s a reflection on the slow decline of musical tastes, and that those of us who were brought up with a certain amount of great music in our ears as children are disappearing (and being replaced by, let’s say, generations with different tastes).

Has Wellington become blasé about the fact that we have one of the world’s great orchestras living here, conducted by an eminent conductor of the older generation, and the programme comprised a couple of what I’d have thought were among the most popular and best-loved classical works.

German soprano Christiane Libor’s reputation rests primarily on Wagner and Strauss and she is based largely in Europe with a few North American outings; none, by the look of her biography, in Britain or other English-speaking countries. While it would have been wonderful to have heard her in a substantial chunk from the Ring cycle for example, the Four Last Songs are a moving summation of the art of Richard Strauss.

Her gifts were evident within the first few bars of the first song, Spring, with a voice that was not just strong and opulent, but could also find the pathos and beauty in Strauss’s late music. The song’s themes however, are not uniformly elegiac, depicting life’s twilight years, capping a long, richly creative life. This first song is suffused with a calm happiness, the optimism of springtime. The second however, September, presages autumn, is a more elaborate song where Libor could demonstrate her vocal fluidity, ranging between glowing fortissimi as well as quiet.

The third and last of the three Hesse songs, Beim Schlafengehen, introduced by low stings, later featured a lovely solo from Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s violin, and then rose to an ecstatic climax. It sometimes seems to me the right place for the cycle to end (there were discussions about the most appropriate order of the four songs), for the spirit awoken by singer and orchestra seems a mixture of that ecstasy and a going out.

But the words of the last song, Im Abendrot, by Eichendorff, one of the most distinctive poems of the early 19th century Romantic poet, contemporary of Rückert and Heine, do make a more meaningful ending, Libor’s voice now in a warm vein of acceptance.

Though the huge size of Strauss’s orchestra makes possible occasional overwhelming effects, more often it’s the range of instruments used with finesse, that have evolved over centuries in western music, that allows an ever-changing chamber music quality to emerge, subtly reflecting the sense and emotion of the words, and supporting, almost never obscuring, the voice.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was, I think, the first live Mahler performance I heard, 20-ish, and I remember being at once captivated and baffled by its size and character. It employs a smaller, more discreet orchestra than the other symphonies: no trombones or tuba and only five horns, when some at the time, were using eight or nine (as in NZSO’s last Strauss plus Escher concert). Its character is perhaps defined by the poem used in the last movement, somewhat peasant-like, naïve; so it opens with sleigh-bells (I have an early recording by Bruno Walter where the sleigh-bells are deleted).

Its magic only deepens and expands with the passing years.

Which prompts me to reflect on the behaviour of some of those who ply my trade of music critic. This work attracted some nasty and cruel reviews at its first performances, and some were quoted in the programme notes; similarly it’s sad to read about the cruelly treated Bruckner, himself a somewhat naive figure, who was routinely attacked by the myopic Brahms-lover, Hanslick who seemed to regard music criticism as ablood sport.

It’s the fairy-tale qualities that endear this music to the listener, and De Waart, to help create that, encouraged woodwind players (in particular) to deliver keener, shriller tones, often by raising their instruments to a horizontal position, and making much use of the three flutes plus piccolo. And thematic fragments get passed around in a way that creates a sort of children’s game.

Another peasant-like feature appears in the second movement where Leppänen switches to a scordatura-tuned violin (typically tuning the G string down a tone or so) to capture that amateur fiddler sense, in music that moved between the Ländler dance (pre-curser to the waltz) and rough peasant tunes. The orchestra played along with it all in seeming delight.

The Ruhevoll (Adagio I guess) movement has always seemed to me is a kind of try-out for the Adagietto in the Fifth Symphony and I’ve wondered why it hasn’t achieved a similar life of its own. But it’s great length – round 20 minutes – would be against it. Its variety of mood is also greater than in the Adagietto, with its combination of splendour and delicacy and rough, peasantish passages.

The reappearance of Christiane Libor, walking in slowly during the opening bars of the fourth movement, felt like a home-coming – we needed to hear more of her. In some ways the last movement might seem something of an anti-climax after the splendours of the third. It’s a setting of one of the 700-odd folk poems collected by Arnim and Brentano and published as Des Knaben Wunderhorn between 1805 and 1808.

It was criticised from that time, not for additions through the nineteenth century, but for its lack of scholarship – the sources were not adhered to, some were subject to embellishment or addition, and some were simply inventions by the compilers themselves. But they are no less a rich treasury of folk poetry that helped inspire the many poets and composers of the Romantic era, from Heine and Eichendorff to Weber and Schumann.

The combination of the ebullient, colourful orchestral scoring with a voice beautifully equipped to blend their playfulness, naivete and spirituality. They rejoiced in the simple things of life, bringing about a subsiding, ‘glow of serenity and peace’ (to quote a quote the programme notes take from musicologist Hugh Macdonald).

The absence of a Beethovenish coda led initially to a somewhat subdued response from the audience, though it grew in passion as the minutes passed, as people understood what a wonderful performance they’d heard.


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