Manchester Camerata return to nature

Martin CullingfordMon 1st February 2010
Jane Irwin: a moving Das Lied von der Erde (photo: Andres Landino)Jane Irwin: a moving Das Lied von der Erde (photo: Andres Landino)

Mahler in Manchester continues with Das Lied von der Erde

On a freezing Manchester evening, walking past Waterhouse’s Gothic-revival town hall, the neo-classical library, the huge iron arch of the former railway station (now a conference centre) – all manifestations of civic self-confidence – nature feels a long way away.

It isn’t of course. On a clear day, from parts of the city, you can make out the Peak District on the horizon, a brooding lure as readily accessible as the Austrian countryside around Vienna would have been for Beethoven and Mahler. Those composers’ relationships with nature provided the programmatic link for the third instalment in Manchester’s Mahler cycle on Saturday, which stepped out of the symphonic chronology to present Schoenberg’s transcription of Das Lied von der Erde.

Schoenberg founded the Vienna-based Association for Private Musical Performances in 1918. Dedicated to exploring new music but short of funds, they made a number of chamber versions of larger works, of which Das Lied was one (begun by Schoenberg, it was completed in 1983 by conductor Rainer Riehn). Listening to Manchester Camerata’s vivid performance, conducted by Douglas Boyd, the first thing to note about the transcription is what an astonishing noise it still makes, tenor Peter Wedd’s anguished opening cry still sounding like he’s bursting through a great sonic swell.

But elsewhere, while some of the grandeur of the original is of course lost, there is instead a new intimacy, not least in the last song, "Der Abschied". What was already quite sparsely scored now acquires a poignant fragility. The final moments when Mahler understands death as part of the renewal of nature is one of music’s most moving resolutions – the concluding words were the composer’s own, and the last he ever set. Mezzo Jane Irwin touchingly caught its profound sense of realisation and sad, consoling acceptance.

But back to nature, the backdrop to Das Lied. Or perhaps more accurately, in keeping with the Chinese traditions from which the text was drawn and which saw man as being subsumed into nature, the foreground. Mahler greatly admired Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and the way it depicts both nature and the impressions and feelings it creates. The Camerata played it standing up, encouraging the soloists almost to dance their themes and lending it all a fine fleetness and zest. The concert's new commission came from Bushra El-Turk, whose short work Mosaic neatly united tonight’s works. Written for the same forces as the Pastoral, it looked to Das Lied for inspiration, both in its use of harmony and its exploration of identity.

An evening that made one want to head for the hills, in an entirely positive way of course.

See Mahler in Manchester 2010 for details of the rest of the series.

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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