The final concert of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's Premier Series for 2018 focused on the vocal and orchestral music of Schubert and Mahler. German baritone Thomas E. Bauer joined the orchestra and its musical director Giordano Bellincampi in taking on an intriguing programme featuring a well-established song-cycle of Mahler and some relative rarities in the forms of an early Schubert symphony, Schubert Lieder orchestrated by other composers and Mahler's Totenfeier.

Giordano Bellincampi and the APO © Adrian Malloch
Giordano Bellincampi and the APO
© Adrian Malloch

This concert gave the audience a rare chance to encounter Schubert's early Symphony no. 3 in D major, written shortly before his 18th birthday. This is an almost overwhelmingly sunny work and Bellincampi emphasised this amiability almost exclusively in his charming approach to the work. The initial figurations of the first movement suggested something of a Sturm und Drang work but it soon opened up into a charmingly rendered lyrical theme. Much spirited interplay took place between the solo woodwinds with particularly pretty clarinet playing. The following Allegretto came across too as very genial and polite. A little more earthiness was to be found in the strong opening figurations of the Menuetto and the ensuing Trio was lightly and elegantly played. Finally, the orchestra tackled the whirling, rambunctious final Presto with impressive aplomb and an almost Rossinian panache. There was a beautiful clarity of texture but despite the impressive playing, there was little in internal contrast in this work, probably Schubert's fault more than this particular performance's.

The orchestra applied similarly translucent textures to the Mahler song-cycle Lieder eines fahren Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Here they were joined by Bauer's compact but rich baritone. These were searing interpretations with an intense and emotionally immediate connection to the grief-filled texts. Even in the second song, ostensibly the happiest of the four, it was clear that happiness was a remembrance through the lens of current suffering. The birds chirped merrily and the sun shone brightly through a conspicuously lighter tone-colour than elsewhere yet it was not surprising when the conclusion was that his love could never bloom again. The third song, Ich hab' ein glühend Messer was the most anguished and here Bauer was wide-ranging in his despair, the sheer agony biting on his words "O weh! Das schneid't so tief". The crushing misery of his death-wish in the final stanzas of the last song was almost unbearable. Bauer's vocal effects were often extreme, from a disembodied pianissimo (verging on falsetto) to sudden lurches in volume in the third song. But all these effects were in perfect service of the music and text and never felt excessive. He also handled the extreme lows of the initial song without the voice turning gravelly.

Thomas E. Bauer © Marco Borggreve
Thomas E. Bauer
© Marco Borggreve

Despite the presence of famous names Brahms, Webern and Reger among the Schubert arrangements, there was little recomposition or radical rethinking of the source works, restrained and faithful to the originals, though there were some impressive trumpet fanfares towards the end of An Schwager Kronos. Webern's are particularly delicately scored and Bauer responded with a gentle heartbreak in Tränenregen. As in the Mahler, it was impossible not to be wowed by Bauer's crisp diction and quick responsiveness to the text. The well-known Erlkönig was the final song of the set, in a rather bombastic arrangement by Kurt Gillmann. Bauer provided delineation between the characters of narrator, child, father and the creepy Erl-King that was extremely sharp without being exaggerated. The child's death was announced with an almost wry resignation, an interesting take on a moment that is often wrung out for great dramatic effect.

The final work, Totenfeier (Funeral Rites), was a little less intense. This single-movement symphonic poem was later to be reorchestrated and slightly altered by the composer to become the first movement of his "Resurrection" Symphony. Mahler ruminates on the meanings of life and death in his usual concentrated fashion but here, the performance lacked something of the gravitas required. Even the opening double bass and cello figurations were not as savage as they could be, feeling a little too relaxed. Admittedly, Bellincampi was still able to bring the work to an impressively intense climax on those great, repeated slashing chords. There were some lovely oboe solos but the horns were not in terribly secure form with several flubs. Overall, it was the vocal items that were the most successful, driven as they were by Bauer's searing interpretations. 

****1