Why would the London Symphony Orchestra pair Mozart's Symphony no. 41 in C major, "Jupiter" and Mahler's songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn? There seemed to be no direct link between them other than that both demonstrate their composers' fondness for mystery. However, it was a programme that worked for me on Thursday; after a delightful Mozart symphony, I was ready to be engaged by the darker, mysterious Mahler.
Typical of his time, Mozart borrowed the first movement's theme from a comic aria which Mozart contributed to a colleague's opera, to the words: "You are a fool, my dear Pompeo – go and learn the ways on the world". Manfred Honeck had barely lifted his baton before the London Symphony Orchestra flew into Mozart's sprightly melodies. They played with enthusiasm and set my pulse racing, although perhaps a little too much as I felt unable to keep up with them. Whilst a quick tempo works for the opening of this symphony, I would have liked to have had Honeck and the LSO playing around with the tempi and daring to be cheeky.
The second movement contained good drama, with Honeck in command of the strings, playing the beautiful, pleading melody. The double basses were particularly prominent with pulsating notes that made me feel uneasy amongst the lyricism of the upper strings, which would have been one of Mozart's enigmas.
The highlight of this performance for me was the fourth movement, which was played ebulliently, with the horns allowed to shine through. Although I should be assessing this performance on the sound of the London Symphony Orchestra, I do enjoy it when you get to see an orchestra throw themselves into a performance mind, body and soul. The first desk of strings were playing so enthusiastically that they were barely sitting on their seats, meaning that I found the performance exhilarating to watch as well as hear. Overall, it was a pleasing performance, although it suffered from a lack of spontaneity and risk-taking.
Mahler's Lieder aus "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" is a collection of twelve German folk texts exploring dark themes such as imprisonment, death and ghosts, as well as more sardonic messages – such as in the song "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt", where St Anthony, ignored by the townsfolk in a fishing port, turns to preaching to the fishes instead. I was particularly excited about this performance as it was the first occasion I have had to see Dorothea Röschmann and Ian Bostridge perform live.
Röschmann was the star of the night. She was captivating in any role she sung, from temptress, mother, dying child, to mourning lover. Her abilities as an actress shone in the song "Lob des hohen Verstands", where she was a cuckoo and a nightingale, and belted out a convincing "I-ja! I-ja!" as a donkey. Her vibrato was shimmering with soaring high notes and she had superb dynamic control.
Bostridge certainly enjoys getting into character and is very skilled at playing the sentinel, the prisoner, or the young man who coldly rejects the advances of Röschmann's young temptress. He looks at the audience, snarls and projects some powerful, piercing sustained notes. He and Röschmann have great rapport and flirt and fight on stage. For me the highlight of the evening was in the final song, "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen" in which Bostridge was the ghost of a soldier visiting his lover, sung by Röschmann. He is romantic, charming and soothing to his distressed lover until he and the LSO suddenly change the mood in the final verse when he tells us that he died in battle, ending the concert chillingly without climax or resolution.
Unfortunately Bostridge's performance was marred by his lower range which was unstable and easily overpowered by the LSO. Subsequently much of the text was lost – a shame, as Bostridge is renowned for his German. He was also let down by a couple of bad stage habits such as looking down at the music at times and losing projection, and he can be a chronic foot-tapper too.
Overall this was a captivating and well thought-out performance. Honeck and the LSO provided strong support to the soloists and were equally instrumental in evoking the different moods for each song. Their performance reminded me that Mahler is more than just a symphonic composer, making me eager to hear more of his Lieder in concert halls.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS
Manfred Honeck © Toshiyuki Urano