For the London Symphony Orchestra’s return to their Barbican home, although still with no audience, the sole work was Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, as arranged by Glen Cortese. Universal Edition’s website shows two Cortese versions, one possible with twenty players and one needing rather more. Here the end credits named an 11.9.7.6.4 string band, double wind and brass, three percussionists. This expansive "reduction” only just fitted the fifty plus players, socially distanced, onto an extended Barbican platform.

The LSO back in the Barbican
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

But the result, as streamed, was sonically close to ideal, with long stretches of the score where few of us would detect that we were not hearing Mahler’s original (often chamber-like) version. Even the middle section of the fourth song Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty), which depicts handsome riders on lively steeds with noisy scoring made its usual raucous impact.

Andrew Staples
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

The singers were perhaps glad not to combat a full complement of players. Andrew Staples was valiant in launching Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow). His soaring forte was well balanced with the brass fanfare, and his good diction registered despite those tricky melismatic moments. This is how to celebrate beautifully glinting wine in a golden goblet, especially if you know it is all transient – Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod (Dark is life, dark is death). That great refrain was sung with all the world’s woe in Staples’ tone. This song needs Heldentenor heft at the outset, but lyric intimacy elsewhere. Staples was no less at home in his other songs, delicately evoking the porcelain pavilion and then lurching through the high leaps impersonating ‘The Drunkard in Spring’.

Magdalena Kožená and Sir Simon Rattle
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

Magdalena Kožená though listed as a soprano in the programme, is usually designated a mezzo-soprano, while Mahler nominated a contralto. Nonetheless Kožená’s seductive silvery mezzo served the work extremely well, even if a few of the lowest notes lack ideal weight. Her excellence of tone and line in her first two songs did not prepare us for her profundity in Der Abschied. She sounded completely inside the existential drama of this meditation on the last farewell, right up to the final “ewig”.

Sir Simon Rattle
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

Sir Simon Rattle loves this wonderful piece almost too much, drawing out some later phrases to eternity – perhaps not inappropriate for a piece closing with earth’s eternal renewal. He drew wonderful playing especially from the woodwind leads, whose contributions are so integral, instruments and voices blending in a tapestry of colour, text and meaning. No piece better suits the times it seems, despite the paradox of a welcome home devoted to music’s great farewell.


This performance was reviewed from the Barbican's live video stream

****1