This concert is one of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s series “Human/Nature: Music for a Precious Planet”. Clearly Mahler’s Song of the Earth with its theme of earth’s beauty and our place in it fits that bill. Also Mahler’s song cycle requires the participation of two of the music world’s endangered species: the true contralto and the Heldentenor.

Andreas Schager and the Philharmonia
© Luca Migliore

The tenor was Andreas Schager, renowned as those eponymous heroes Siegfried and Tristan in Wagner’s operas. For once his opening strophe in the tremendous Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow) was not lost in the orchestral tumult, but soared above it to thrilling effect. Siegfried and Tristan both come to grief by failing to observe one rule – “when on stage in a Wagner opera, never accept a drink”. This Heldentenor sounded as if he could drink the whole Gibichung horde under the table and still roar for more. Conductor Xian Zhang had no need to hold back, so the Philharmonia's horns caroused with the best of them.

The effect was not always subtle, but preferable to subtle inaudibility, and the stentorian vocal manner suited his other drinking song Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring). And he was affecting enough when in that song he asks a bird if spring has come, and painting the exquisite picture of young men in the pavilion on the lake in Von der Jugend (Of Youth), refining his tone to match those silk robed writers of verses. His regular collaborator in the work, including this evening, Dame Sarah Connolly, wondered in interview how he did it; “the power behind it all appears to cost him very little.” Indeed he seemed to sit enjoying the female songs too, and the orchestral role, smiling appreciatively at a fine solo from Karen Stephenson’s cello.

Dame Sarah Connolly
© Luca Migliore

Connolly of course is a mezzo-soprano, and lower-lying passages do not sound as they do for a contralto; a matter of vocal colour, weight and contrast with the many delightful woodwind contributions rather than range. She has long known how to manage the challenges of her three songs, and did so again here, with even more insight than other recent accounts she has given. In the same interview she says of her preparation “I spend most of my time thinking about a fresh approach…. In the days leading up, (Das Lied) is like a presence, growing deeper.”

And so it sounded, the spell she casts in Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn) touches anyone who has heard her intone “Mein Herz ist müde” (My heart is weary). That line looks forward to the world weariness of the protagonist in Der Abschied (The Farewell), saying a last goodbye to a friend. That friend explains his departure, “Still ist mein Herz and harret seiner Stunde” (My heart is still and awaits its hour). Little in Mahler is more moving than this simplest intimation of mortality, rendered universal by a Chinese poet, an Austrian composer, and a fine singer.

Alina Ibragimova, Xian Zhang and the Philharmonia
© Luca Migliore

The first half was hardly less distinguished. Alina Ibragimova’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was special, with a very devoted and virtuosic account of the solo part. And not only the solo part, since in Baroque fashion she joined in the violin section’s tuttis, right from the first movement exposition. She also offered an unfamiliar first movement cadenza, beginning with some ferocious double-stopping, and even involving timpanist Antoine Siguré in a reminiscence of the work’s opening. Cadential flourishes also linked the second and third movements and spiced the finale’s coda – the performance approached a time of 50 minutes. Xian Zhang was an alert accompanist, and the smallish Philharmonia string band (based on four double basses) made a full singing sound. Ibragimova’s phrasing of lyrical moments, and through the whole of the lovely Larghetto – itself a song of the earth, or of heaven – made this as moving in its way as the Mahler.