Only connect. Mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke previously teamed up with Stuart Skelton for Vladimir Jurowski’s concert performance of Die Walküre at the Royal Festival Hall earlier this year, she as Fricka, he as Siegmund. The orchestra on that occasion, the London Philharmonic, last week announced a new principal conductor to succeed the Russian maestro. That’s Edward Gardner, the very man who conducted this Prom.

Edward Gardner © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Edward Gardner
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Diverting though such trivia can be, its cheerful symmetry need not detain us. We have a concert to consider and, happily, it was an extremely satisfying event with two well-paired soloists. Skelton was at his most resonant: sonorous for the most part, plangent at times and yet constantly alive to the mood swings of his texts, as in the introductory Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde whose bibulous self-pity dips into the morose. His German fellow singer, by contrast, delivered her dominant role with a relaxed authority that melded particularly well with Gardner’s no-nonsense approach to Mahler’s score. Together they formed a hugely satisfying trio. Skelton’s bold use of a falsetto-tinged head voice on “Traum” in Der Trunkene im Frühling, Mahnke’s discreet vibrato in Der Einsame im Herbst and the conductor’s subtle highlighting of key instruments within the orchestral texture throughout the hour-long work… these aspects along with many others lent the performance its special patina.

Claudia Mahnke, Edward Garner and Stuart Skelton © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Claudia Mahnke, Edward Garner and Stuart Skelton
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

There were moments when Mahnke’s reluctance to over-project vocally gave the impression that she was singing for the microphones rather than the auditorium, notably in Von der Schönheit, but then again the Royal Albert Hall is a vicious venue for balance and she did well to avoid stridency. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, for its part, was at its most expressive, especially the woodwind whose exquisitely articulated introduction to Der Einsame im Herbst and sparklingly elaborate interplay in Von der Jugend were an unalloyed pleasure.

Time stood still, after a fashion, throughout the 30 minutes of Der Abschied. The final song seemed to last both an eternity and no time at all, so involving was the engagement of singer and players in this near-metaphysical painting of love, departure and death. Its final stanza gave a soul-shaking impression of reconciliation, liberation even, in music where the seasons turn and life continues for a forever that Mahnke and Gardner drew out with extraordinary daring.

Leif Ove Andsnes © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Leif Ove Andsnes
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The concert had opened with a rousing performance of Britten’s Piano Concerto, and the full panoply of the BBCSO seemed wonderfully energised by the youthful score. Leif Ove Andsnes ate up the outer movements’ ceaseless pianistic flourishes with a showman’s insouciance and interpreted the lolloping second movement as though it were an off-cut from a night at a Weimar cabaret. Gardner brought a lurid touch of the fairground to the second subject so that when the initial waltz returned to join it, the two moods cross-infected each other to become deliciously unhealthy and sinister. The Impromptu that followed was a haunting mesh of major and minor key melodic shapes: Andsnes played the opening bars as though they were by Erik Satie, but when the horns burst in they accentuated the glorious switchback ride between sunny tunes and blue notes. As for the strutting finale, I've never previously heard it build quite so emphatically towards the celebratory spirit of The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

****1