THE MANCUNIAN CONNECTION: BIRTWISTLE AND MAHLER IN BERLIN
THE MANCUNIAN CONNECTION:
BIRTWISTLE AND MAHLER IN BERLIN
Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
The concert given by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under the British conductor, Daniel Harding, in the Philharmonie Berlin on 15 September 2015 turned out to be something rather personal to me. The first work performed was by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, called Earth Dances (1985/86). He belongs to the group of composers and musicians known as the “Manchester School”, because they were all trained at the Royal Manchester College of Music. That institution has good reasons to be proud of itself, because it has turned out musicians, soloists, and composers of distinction. I remember when one of its graduates, the late John Ogdon (1937-1989), won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962 (jointly with Vladimir Ashkenazy), it was a cause for jubilation for the people of Manchester (known in the English language as “Mancunians”), which was of a different kind from that brought about by the successes of their two football teams.
How did I come into this? Well, I went to Manchester to attend a tutorial college in preparation for university entrance. (Our school-leaving certificate was not recognized then, and as I intended to study Modern Languages, two further languages were required, namely Latin and another modern language beyond English and French – I opted for German, in the hope of being able to understand the words of Schubert’s songs.) Manchester has always been a musical city, internationally known by its symphony orchestra, the Hallé Orchestra, founded by a German conductor and pianist, Sir Charles Hallé (1819-1895), in 1857, making it the oldest orchestra of the United Kingdom. The orchestra has had its ups and downs, especially from the financial point of view, but has managed to survive. The golden era was when John Barbirolli (1899-1970) decided to leave the prestigious New York Philharmonic, of which he was made permanent conductor as successor to Arturo Toscanini at the tender age of 37, decided to retuned home in 1943 to build up the orchestra anew with the then active numbers of 30! Turning down more lucrative offers from world-class orchestras and opera houses, he remained with the Hallé until his death in 1970.
He was a dedicated musician, always rehearsed his orchestra thoroughly and commanded a very large repertoire, including modern music. He discovered Mahler at the recommendation of the great British music critic, Sir Neville Cardus (1988-1975), who told him that his musical personality would well serve the music of Mahler. (This is a rare instance whereby a critic can influence a musician to such a degree!) Barbarolli studied hard, rehearsed furiously and the Hallé under his direction became the centre of the Mahler Renaissance before Leonard Bernstein came on the scene. I was lucky to be able to hear all 9 Mahler Symphonies in one season, and Das Lied von der Erde was performed twice in 2 consecutive years. (It was the policy of the Hallé to repeat works of importance so that the audience would get to know them better from live performances.) Sir John automatically became the Mahler exponent and was several times invited to conduct Mahler by the Berlin Philharmonie Orchestra. The Song of the Earth was performed last night in the Phiharmonie, and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the two soloists and the conductor conspired to turn it into a memorable occasion, when a great work was given an interpretation of incomparable beauty and emotional depth.
Let me address first Birtwistle’s Earth Dances for Orchestra. It is an ambitious work in several respects. It is a piece that music lovers will enjoy hearing as well as watching in a live performance. The deployment of the instrumental strengths of a symphony orchestra provides much excitement for the public. If you want to know what a symphony orchestra can do and can sound, this work can serve as a demonstration. But the composer does not create those sounds as mere experiment, for there is an underlying concept to buttress them: he is depicting nature’s elemental forces in their primordial conditions. Birtwhistle refuses to emulate Debussy’s La Mer, which I reviewed a few days ago. He is not interested in describing impressions of those forces; he wants to get inside them, gauge their might and reproduce the process that propels their uninterrupted motion. But this is a musical composition, not a seismological measurement; so he must tie it down to some musical form(s), and what would be better than creating Dances, which in the human world are recognized as a source of movement and merriment.
The work did not strike a responsive chord at its première at The Last Night of the Proms in 1995, and a music critic greeted it as “The Last Fright of the Proms”. In the hands of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and its conductor Daniel Harding, it became really a series of dances, rough-hewn and savage at times, but enjoyable, perhaps in a way not so remote from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps. The forward movement was sustained by an inherent basic rhythm which one could hear all through the work, while other constituent parts of the score were engaged either in dialogues or in fights for supremacy. If I were to pick fault with this performance, I would have to observe that the ensemble was not always perfect, as the conductor was burying his head in the score most of the time and rarely looked at his orchestra. (A score like this one could perhaps be executed with perfection via electronic music, and I cannot help thinking of Terry Riley. But Birtwistle wanted to adhere to acoustic instruments at any cost.) So the communication between the conductor and the musicians was not without some deficiencies. But I think the audience, and the musicians too, had sympathy with the conductor. A score like this one cannot possibly be memorized, let alone in whole, for even in parts, it was already problematic.
The audience was enraptured, except for one or two boos. The Berliners felt compelled to compete with the London audience at the première! The musicians did not hesitate to congratulate themselves that no technical mishap had occurred. The two ladies at the first desks of the first violins, namely the Concertmaster and her Deputy, embraced each other; and as I turned my eyes on the group of percussionists – which was a large group – everybody was embracing everybody. How many orchestras and conductors would normally accept Birtwistle’s challenge? The musical culture of Manchester is such that it conditions musicians to rise to the occasion. And on this occasion, they did.
Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is described by Mahler as his most personal work. For me, the performance last night brought back happy memories of my experience of classical music that was shaped by the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. Two of the movements sung by the German tenor, Michael Schade, namely “Von der Jugend” (On Youth) and “Der Trunkene im Frühling” (The Drunken Man in Spring), sounded so familiar, and I still remember how it was sung by the British tenor, Richard Lewis (1914-1990), over half a century ago. (He too was born in Manchester.) Michael Schade took a rather dramatic-operatic approach, whereas Richard Lewis was more lyrical (if my memory does not fail me), being an oratorio singer. I must confess I preferred the lyrical approach. Mahler did not mean to be unfair to the male singer, but the most deeply-felt and heart-rending parts are given to the contralto: she always has the last word, and that memorable dying note “Ewig …”, (Forever) was sung seven times. The contralto in the Manchester performances (as I said, two concerts were given) was the Swedish singer, Kerstin Meyer (born 1928), and last night’s soloist was also a Swedish singer, Anna Larsson. I think Larsson has a more powerful voice than Kerstin Meyer, and she could sustain those long notes and possessed an astounding range of timbres and dynamic. Her performance brought Mahler nearer to one’s heart. While in Manchester, I was then just starting to learn German and could not grasp much of the meaning of the words, but as I was following the text during the performance last night, I felt deeply thankful (I don’t know, to whom?) that I have since become a Germanist and have had the fortune (or the misery) of imparting the knowledge of the German language, culture and literature to my students at the university surrounded by pig sties in Nakorn Pathom. The last word in the last line of stanza 4 in the song, “Der Eisame im Herbst” (The Lonely One in Autumn), as sung by Anna Larsson, was absolute bliss. The line goes like this, “Ja, gibt mir Ruh’, ich habe Erquickung not.” (Yes, give me peace, I am in need of relief). The German language, being what it is, which makes foreign learners struggle so hard, is such that the verb “nothaben” (now in the revised standard German spelling is written as two words, “Not haben”) has to be split into two syllables, with the syllable “not” coming at the end. And the great composer did not fail to exploit the full potential of the structure of his language. How Mahler wrote that final note and how Anna Larsson sang it with her dark, deep and sonorous voice, did shake me emotionally, as the sound of the music and the word reinforced each other to paint, just by one single syllable and not even a complete word, the fate of the protagonists that we all share.
The orchestral writing of Das Lied von der Erde shows Mahler at his most musical, profound and philosophic. He had appropriated German poetry in other works for voice and orchestra to a degree unsurpassed by lesser composers, and this time he was looking towards the East for wisdom, and he found it: that fundamental realization of the impermanence of things, embedded in daily life and expressed with great simplicity. He was undergoing a miserable period of his life, after the death of his daughter and the diagnosis of his own incurable heart disease. But if this is the music of a man knowing that the end was coming, it does not represent sadness or misery in the usual sense. How does the artist turn that suffering into a creative urge? The orchestral part contains so much that is not only supportive of the text, but also abstracts from it a philosophy of life which may not be able to sustain the composer’s own life, but is in a position to inspire other people to greater things. I shall not describe at which points the oboe’s entry goes straight into your heart, or how the orchestral parts introduce or conclude the message of the text. I would say just this, that even for a chance to dig deep into the meaning of this Das Lied von der Erde, it is worth learning German! (Just one little reservation about Anna Larsson’s singing: her German pronunciation was defective at times, while her predecessor, Kerstin Meyer, mastered this foreign language better.) But the artistry of Larsson’s singing was so overwhelming that one would not stop to pick fault with her.
On the whole, this was an evening preoccupied with ruminations on our earth, though not necessarily earth-bound. Birtwistle makes us aware of the primordial grandeur of the earth, while Mahler explores the various facets of a common man’s life on earth and tries to say the truth about his fortune and misfortune, only to prove to us that art can rise above human sufferings and limitations. All such messages would not have come across without the distinguished direction coming from the British conductor, Daniel Harding. I had heard his recordings before, which already impressed me. But this live performance confirms that he is one of the leading conductors of his generation, although he has had no formal training in conducting. (Barbirolli played the cello in the Covent Garden Opera orchestra, and learned conducting from experience.) There was sincerity in his approach to music. The playing by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra was nuanced and differentiated, which reflected the highly professional guidance from the conductor. He did not produce grand gestures. He was not showing off his mettle. He was just serving the music. And that he did so well. Harding is only 40, and I prophesy a great future for him – as long as he will not fall prey to the “music business” of today.
16 September 2015