Mahler knew all about writing for the human voice. Long before he embarked on his exploration of symphonic form, his first major work Das klagende Lied featured six vocal soloists, and some of his early songs were recycled into the Wunderhorn symphonies. A pick’n’mix approach to his vocal output is sometimes encountered in concert programmes, but there is no reason to query such eclecticism. The original collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn made up of twelve songs and published in 1899 was itself amended a few years later, with Revelge and Der Tamboursg’sell substituted for vocal material that found its way into the second and third symphonies. These two were included in Peter Mattei’s set of five Lieder accompanied by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck.

Peter Mattei and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
© Yanan Li

With his saturnine looks and imposing bearing the Swedish baritone immediately looked the part for the two songs which explore the life of the military. Yet this is no heroic engagement leading to a triumphant victory on the battlefield; it is the inescapable conclusion that a sad and lonely death awaits the ordinary soldier in the theatre of war, a sentiment given added poignancy in the contemporaneous poetry of Thomas Hardy (Drummer Hodge), A.E. Housman (A  Shropshire Lad) and the later war poems of Wilfred Owen. Mattei’s impressively inky colouring in the lower register and keen enunciation gave full force to the bleakness of Mahler’s vision, sombre and sore in tone for the “ich muss marschieren bis in’ Tod” of Revelge, the mock exultation of the repeated “trallali, trallaley, trallalera” searing itself into the spirit. In Der Tamboursg’sell with eyes pressed together, lips pursed and teeth bared, every line of this hauntingly beautiful ballad was etched in visible pain. The final “Gute Nacht” resonated like a cry of despair.

Peter Mattei, Manfred Honeck and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
© Yanan Li

In these two songs especially, but elsewhere too, Honeck provided an almost expressionistic, wonderfully transparent accompaniment, picking out individual colours in wind, brass and percussion in a way that frequently reminded me of Berg’s Wozzeck. After the heavy focus on irony and moral ambiguity in the introductory songs, Mattei chose to conclude with one of Mahler’s many farewells to life itself. Here the voice that had earlier been so alive and the face so theatrical in mien needed just more inwardness and bleaching of tone for Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. The weariness suggested by the opening cor anglais solo with the harp tolling gently in the background was not quite matched in Mattei’s delivery, a slightly wavering intonation unsettling what should have been a steady line.

Manfred Honeck
© Yanan Li

It was Massenet who declared the music of Brahms to be “the soul of Vienna”. This performance of Brahms’ First Symphony, which took all of 21 years in the making, certainly sounded very Viennese. Honeck aimed for a blended approach, polyphony mattering much more than texture, rhythms uniformly soft-edged, strings to the fore, woodwind and brass rarely encouraged to put their collective heads above the parapet (excepting fine solos from Jesper Harryson’s oboe and Markus Maskuniitty’s horn). Transitions were negotiated elegantly, tempi (apart from a marked ritardando in the final coda) were rarely questionable. Everything was kept on the move, nothing slithered to a halt. But here’s the problem I had: despite Honeck’s frequent dramatic and enveloping gestures which betray the influence of Carlos Kleiber, it was all a little bland, effortless even. Where was the passion, where was the soul? Certainly no sense of Faustian conflicts in the outer movements and above all none of the unfettered C major exhilaration at journey’s end. The magic was all in the first half.


 This performance was reviewed from the KonserthusetPlay video stream

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