The KKL’s annual Easter festival turned its sights this year on performing works marked by a higher spiritual − or religious − level, as varied as such expressions might be. The Sinfonie Orchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg (SWR) and the Vokalensemble Stuttgart both showed solid musical footing that could only be matched by the precision and peak performance often attributed to products of fine German design.

Ingo Metzmacher © Kai Bienert
Ingo Metzmacher
© Kai Bienert

Some 25 vocalists gathered in a loose semicircle around the conductor to sing Mendelssohn’s Three Psalms for Soli and mixed choir a cappella. Often bouncing on his heels, as he was to do consistently through the evening’s programme, Ingo Metzmacher gave unmistakably clear cues, but had also, apparently, kept a keen eye on diction. In Psalm 2, “Why do the Heathen Rage?”, we are asked to break the infidels “with a rod of iron” (mit eisernem Scepter), a phrase that was repeated with frightening emphasis, but enunciated among the four voices as neatly as a single spoken line. And as riveting as were the volume and textural variations, so, too, was the final “Amen” tender and emotive.

In the second psalm, to “ Judge Me, O God”, “pleasure”, (Freude) and “soul” (Seele) figured in a musical dialogue that passed back and forth between the men’s and women’s parts, joining considerable forces again for “Send out the light and thy truth” at the end. The third psalm began with a tenor recitative “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, a cry in the wilderness that was quickly followed by the choir’s voicing the very human agony − in the first person − that Jesus suffered on the cross. With such a tight command of the musical score and the emotive power it inspired, the singers shed light on texts that rang true of the Passion, and bore witness to the glorious “dominion (that) belongs to the Lord”.

After some 18 poignant minutes, the stagehands (and logistic champions) busied themselves with setting up close to a hundred chairs for the performance of Gustav Mahler’s apocalyptic Sixth Symphony. Written between 1903-1904, the Sixth also tells a story of suffering, but on a human scale. Here is a fictitious hero whose journey is punctuated by the whole gamut of the unexpected, just as it is in real life. Sometimes known as the “Tragic” – nomenclature that Mahler never himself embraced – the symphony is widely thought to portray three major ills that befell the composer: the death of his beloved daughter, Maria, at just 5; his expulsion from the post as General Director of the Vienna Opera, and the diagnosis of a life-threatening heart condition. Chronology negates the theory, though; these events actually happened after the Sixth was committed to paper.

Nevertheless, Mahler’s symphony looks to understand the full depth and breadth of human experience: rapturous happiness, euphoria, exuberance, anger and abject despair. Just when you think you’ve more or less got “a handle” on things, circumstances spin out of control and you land somewhere you never expected to be. So, too, is that the case in this music, since Mahler held nothing back. The score oscillates between the highly sensuous and the sombre, the strings trembling to paint an illustration of peace in nature that is, of itself, easily broken.

After the chaos of the very start of the Allegro, the strings drive the familiar “Alma theme”, a tribute to Mahler’s wife. The sounds in this movement range from those of honking cars in a crowded Viennese street to pastoral cowbells. The exuberance of this first movement was infectious in Lucerne. Metzmacher placed the Scherzo second, a many faceted movement in which the oboe, particularly, has a chance to shine. As it did, the conductor, seen from the side, was smiling broadly: a man entirely in his element. The SWR mastered the movement’s fiendish tempi and ably revealed moments where human laughter seems transposed into the notation; elsewhere, the narrative includes everything from slowpoke pacing to a plaintive children’s song.

The Andante, which was hallmarked by a palpable, nostalgic sweetness, is grounded in its beautiful harmonies, and made considerable stage time for the SWR’s gifted clarinets and horns. The starring solo violin pulled up us by the bootstraps to fully appreciate the repetition of the “Alma” theme, and subsequently, an ocean of Romantic waves was unleashed before us. The orchestra’s phrasing and push-pull dynamic were commendable, the unity of the violins before dissolving slowly on the last note, breath-taking.

Finally, there was the “big bang” of the Finale, and the renowned hammer blows. Here, there were two, the number Mahler himself was to reduce from the original three. Like in a “War of the Titans” accompanied by lots of brass, there were moments of vastly monumental scale that make this music a bridge from late Romanticism to the Modern. Yet for wherever it stands, Mahler’s pushing oscillations between the rapturous and the stringent demand that the players give an entirely committed performance. Under Metzmacher, that was fully achieved; the SWR’s performance couldn’t have been any better.

*****