At first sight there seems little that connects Beethoven and Mahler, working at opposite ends of a long century, the one steeped in a time of revolution and war, the other caught up in a fin de siècle slide into the abyss. However, quite apart from the fact that they both wrote nine complete symphonies (and bits of a tenth), the latter made a number of Retuschen or retouchings to the former’s symphonic output involving, in the case of the Eroica, a very angst-ridden E flat clarinet. As a connoisseur of death, Mahler would also have been drawn to that symphony’s funeral march. And he himself suggested that, as composers, they had something else in common: a view of music which aimed at realising a musical allegory of the entire universe.

Thomas Hengelbrock © Michael Zapf
Thomas Hengelbrock
© Michael Zapf

Something else linked the two in this particular programme, in which Thomas Hengelbrock conducted the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester for his final run of concerts in charge, namely pain and a sense of loss resulting from rejection. In Beethoven’s case this was the discovery that Napoleon, whom he had initially idolised, was not the incarnation of the spirit of freedom after all; with Mahler it was the realisation that his beloved Almschi had been two-timing him with Walter Gropius.

Hengelbrock started off with the full orchestra (the strings, seated antiphonally, were reduced for the following two pieces) playing the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth. This was a curiously good-mannered reading, in which most of the edges were smoothed out, the great central dissonances – where nine notes are piled upon one another in utter tonal disintegration – having most of the sting removed, as if Hengelbrock was wary of making the horses shy. Lyricism was highlighted but the drama left to look after itself, so that this movement became a distant cousin of the Adagietto in the Fifth Symphony.

Whereas the over-bright acoustics in the Elbphilharmonie had given the orchestral sound a lighter quality in the Adagio, it provided a satisfying clarity for the chamber-like delicacy of the instrumentation in the Kindertotenlieder. Of more than four hundred poems that the grief-stricken poet Friedrich Rückert wrote on the death of two of his children, Mahler selected just five, stipulating however that they were to be seen as a suite in the specified order, with no breaks between the individual songs. Arguably the greatest exponent of musical irony that there has ever been, he stamps his mark in the very first song, where the rising of the sun is depicted in the minor mode and the reference to the “ill luck” announces itself in the major. Later Mahler uses the glockenspiel to herald the death-knell.

These songs are achingly beautiful, touching the listener to the quick, and it needs a richly expressive but controlled voice to avoid any suggestion of mawkishness. Matthias Goerne was wonderfully alive to each nuance in the writing, his body often mirroring the emotional torment, using breathtakingly veiled half-tones to convey the inner grief of the first song, embodying the idea of Innerlichkeit in the second, with shadings of vocal colour that ran from charcoal-grey to the deepest burgundy, adopting a gravelly tone to complement the keening solo oboe at the start of the third, negotiating the transitions from the highest to the deepest registers with acuity in the fourth (here the voice has to stretch the most) and opening up a mood of stoical acceptance in the closing lines of the final song. In Hengelbrock, Goerne had a most attentive accompanist.

With his long experience of working with period ensembles, it was to be expected that Hengelbrock’s Eroica would be full of light and air, with minimal use of vibrato and sharp musical punctuation from the hard-sticked timpani. Like Hermes the wingèd messenger, Hengelbrock was impatient to deliver the essentials. There was plenty of revolutionary fervour in the first movement: you could almost see the banners being unfurled and flapping defiantly in the wind, the slogans being voiced with utter conviction by the wind choir, the massed militia of the strings light and agile on their feet. But there was not much in the way of black ribbons in the Marcia funebre, where statements were frequently overly emphatic and compromised by a raw edge, and the tempi generally too forward-moving to dignify the occasion.

Hengelbrock was much more convincing in the scherzo, where the contrasts between the gently rustling strings “in the bee-loud glade” at the outset and the foot-stamping high spirits of the skipping rhythms that followed were given splendid force. There was an attacca launch to the finale and then came those pizzicatos – perfectly placed – which Mahler once described as representing a child trying to take its first steps and stumbling. This child was soon on its feet though, leaping towards the finishing tape and seemingly without a care in the world.