Opening a concert with a selection of introspective Mahler songs was a bold choice from the late Claudio Abbado. The intricate sound worlds of the Rückert-Lieder and Urlicht from the Second Symphony are somehow muted in tone, and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra inhabit this beautifully. The fantastic Waltraud Meier’s concentration on the text is truly captivating, and she brings this meaning across into her voice, phrasing and colouring every passage uniquely and wholly appropriately. In many ways this is exactly what Mahler does, these songs don’t have a particularly strong musical narrative because the structure lies in the text. And this is what made this a difficult opening to the concert. There was so much detail in the orchestral playing, such well-honed phrasing from the conductor, Daniele Gatti, but there was no sense of arrival. It was almost as though the concert had not yet really began, or that the Mahler songs were really just one long, slow and uncertain introduction to the Wagner which followed.

Claudio Abbado © Felix Broede | DG
Claudio Abbado
© Felix Broede | DG

Rene Pape’s rendition of “Wotan’s Farewell” was truly awe inspiring. His attention to detail and dramatic delivery allows this “bleeding chunk” (as Sir Donald Tovey called all concert performances of excerpts from Wagner’s operas) to speak as eloquently as it does on stage. The orchestra finally glowed with sound, playing full pelt for the first time. The horns soared through the brass writing, with a sense of freedom after the extended piano of the Mahler. This was a truly magnificent performance and the final chord, played without vibrato, rang throughout the cavernous Frauenkirche.

Following the interval came Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, perhaps the best known of his orchestral works. Schumann’s larger works are often criticised on many grounds. Primarily this is because of his dense orchestration, with thick string writing and frequent use of the tutti wind group, but there many critics also have an issue with his handling of large forms, such as the symphony. We often hear his works performed by large orchestras, with 16 first violins and veritable sea of cellos, but the Mahler Chamber Orchestra’s comparatively small ensemble, with 12 first violins allows the music to breathe a little more freely while still having the power to balance with the winds. The issue of form is solved by Schumann himself; this short symphony, barely more than 30 minutes long, contains five movements rather than the usual four, each far shorter than most romantic symphonic movements.

Gatti’s conducted the symphony with a broad sweep and flowing tempi. The first movement was brisk, but flexible, always allowing room to shape the syncopated melody. The horns were once again a highlight of this excellent ensemble, projecting over the orchestra without ever resorting to a harsh sound. In the second movement the music continued to flow, with wonderful colours, especially in pianissimo. However, I would have like to hear more of the contrast between the themes, where the legato melody gives way to light staccato semiquavers. The third movement, with its folksong-like theme indeed sung, with wonderfully phrased woodwind solos, marred only slightly by issues of ensemble. The fourth movement, supposedly depicting the elevation of a cardinal in Cologne Cathedral, was truly monumental in sound, with the trombones finally entering radiantly in the upper register. This movement is a big chorale, followed by a lyrical canon, but underlying this is much detail which I felt was somewhat brushed over. The tragedy of the fourth movement gave way to the effervescent finale which Gatti gave an effortless lilt, the perfect counterbalance to his intense and earnest fourth movement.

There was excellent playing and singing here, and Gatti’s sense of pacing makes everything hang wonderfully together, with a sense of pacing which very few conductors master. However, the programme felt like it missed its opening. This concert was a true demonstration of why most concerts start with an overture. There needs to be something to grab, to persuade, or to draw you into the music, which the pastel shades of Mahler’s orchestral songs are neither designed for nor capable of.