Is Das Lied von der Erde a song cycle, as its name implies, or is it, as Mahler subtitled it, a symphony for voices and orchestra that includes voices, described by Leonard Bernstein as the composer’s greatest? Perhaps the question is unanswerable: at the end of an evening filled with wonderful musicianship, Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra left the question in my head unanswered.

Christian Gerhaher © Jim Rakete | Sony Classical
Christian Gerhaher
© Jim Rakete | Sony Classical

In terms of sheer virtuosity of playing, the evening showed off the LSO at their very best. I spent the evening checking off individual musicians in my notebook as having stunned me with a solo and, by the end, the list included just about every woodwind player – as well as leader Roman Simovic. Oboist Oliver Stankiewicz was top of that list, deservedly the first of the players to receive Rattle’s plaudits at the curtain call, but there were staggering duets between flute and baritone voice, a glorious duet between harps and bass clarinet, spectacular force from braying trombones, a joyous brass-laden march in the fourth song “On beauty”: hundreds of individual moments of brilliance. Mahler is unparalleled in giving orchestral players the chance to shine with an almost limitless palette of different instrument combinations, while keeping it all in the service of an orchestral narrative, and the LSO were flawless in the way they brought this out.

As a song cycle, however, I was less convinced, despite the high intrinsic quality of the two singers. Das Lied von der Erde consists of six songs alternating between two singers: a tenor, whose texts feature youth and drinking, with any sorrows of the world to be doused in wine, and an alto (or baritone), whose texts are more thoughtful, often heavy-hearted. Simon O'Neill and Christian Gerhaher have voices and styles so different as to greatly enhance this contrast. O’Neill was every bit the epitome of joviality, rapidly banishing any moments of self-doubt (in the first number, the “Drinking song of Earth’s misery”, the contrasting refrains of “Dark is life, dark is death” were rapidly brushed aside. O’Neill’s voice is clear and high, a pleasant, engaging, youthful voice, but there were signs of strain on the high notes. Mahler’s orchestration is very unforgiving: there are several passages in which the tenor is required to soar above a full-throated orchestra, and Rattle wasn’t exactly moderating the level to make things easier.

The quality of Christian Gerhaher’s voice as a Lieder singer won’t have surprised anyone: his combination of timbral beauty, tonal breadth and elegance of phrasing has been unequalled for many years now, and last night was no exception. What impressed me, however, was the way in which, even in a full-sized concert hall, Gerhaher engages with the audience: even if you’re at the back of the hall, you have the uncanny sensation that he is talking directly to you as if you were having a conversation in his living room. But I have reservations as to what is the content of the conversation. Gerhaher’s engagement with the music is unquestionable: he shows great artistry in the modulation of his voice in line with each musical phrase. But my own taste veers towards prima le parole, and I do question his engagement with the text. I noted one example of many in detail: when the poetry describes the loveliest of the girls gazing at the beautiful horseman, he describes the sparkle (“Funkeln”) in her eyes, followed to the darkness (“Dunkeln”) of her impassioned look. But Gerhaher’s tone and phrasing are identical – missing the opportunity for a sense of contrast. Still, that pure vocal quality won through at the end: the soft repetitions of “Ewig” (forever) were deeply, deeply satisfying.

As often, I didn’t feel that such a large scale work was helped by being preceded by a 20-30 minute piece and an interval. Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, for a reduced string orchestra, is a repeated interweaving of themes washing over one in waves of sound. It was written in the aftermath of the World War 2 bombing of many of Germany and Austria’s opera houses, felt by Strauss as epitomising the destruction of German civilisation. Its tone came across as one of resignation rather than of intense grief: this was beautiful music, but to my ears, neither the work nor its performance came close to the far more substantial fare after the interval.