It’s difficult to imagine two works as different as Britten’s piano concerto and Mahler’s Lied von der Erde. When Britten composed his piano concerto in 1938, commissioned by Sir Henry Wood for his Promenade concerts, he was only 24, but he was already an established composer. It’s a crowd-pleasing piece that is full of bravura, energy, catching tunes and is made to wow both the critics and the audience, but it’s also full of satire and wistfulness. It’s also a piece that reflects the context in which it was created, both the uncertainty of the pre-World War II period and the musical influence of famous composers of the time such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Ravel (who had died in 1937) on the young Britten. It’s a work that requires from the soloist and the orchestra percussive and rhythmical qualities as well as a sense of colors.
Yesterday evening the performance given by the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, the BBC symphony orchestra and the British conductor Edward Gardner displayed the youthful viguour, colorful brilliance and wistfulness required to express all the nuances of this piece. In the Toccata the percussiveness and clarity of Andsnes’s playing was set against the sharp and often sarcastic sound of the orchestra, Gardner managing to draw a very boisterous and colorful from the musicians, especially the very snarling brass section of the BBCSO. The waltz started very softly and slowly before gaining in intensity, the orchestra sounding more and more threatening and sarcastic, while the solist drew darker colors from his instrument. The impromptu marked a change of atmosphere. It was meditative, anxiety-ridden and dark. It was interrupted at some point by a cell phone ringing, and then continued wistfully until the passaglia which was a moment of sheer virtuosity on the part of Leif Ove Andsnes. Finally the March closed the concerto quite energetically, although for me it wasn’t aggressive enough to express the idea of a military march present in this piece. As an encore Leif Ove Andsnes played beautifully an excerpt from Federico Monpou’s Suburbis.
After the interval things started to become more serious. If Britten’s piano concerto is a youthful and minor piece, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) is one of the most important works in the history of classical music, a masterpiece that can’t leave the audience indifferent and unmoved. A powerful performance of Das Lied von der Erde always leaves one drained and lost, but also, as far as I am concerned, strangely serene. It’s a tale of life and death, or rather of the dislocation of life and how let go. It’s also a work that is absolutely dreadfully difficult to perform for the orchestra and the singer, especially for the tenor, and I must say that Stuart Skelton was both very brave and very moving, and sang very articulately. Edward Gardner was careful in the first movement Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde (Drinking song of earth’s misery) not to drawn the tenor’s voice in orchestral noise. From that first movement onwards an underlying feeling of anxiety was expressed, most nosptably through the piercing and shrill sound of the woodwinds and brass.
The beautiful and melancholic voice of Claudia Manhke filled the Royal Albert Hall after the first measures of « Der Einsame in Herbst (The Lonely in Autumn) , which were played very softly and plaintively by the strings and the woodwinds. There was a deeply sad and moving performance that was entirely done without any pathos but with a fragility that touched the heart of the audience.
The third movement « Von der Jugend » was quite light-hearted and dancing, but I had the impression that it lacked contrasts and that it would have benefited from more colors and sharper edges to make it more lively. Skelton was once again remarkable, giving a colourful, expressive interpretation, in a perfectly intelligible German (and I want to stress that aspect of his performance because it’s truly difficult for a musician to sing words so that the audience can understand them distinctly, especially when it’s not your native tongue). Orchestrally speaking, the same remarks apply to the fourth movement Von der Schönheit (Beauty), and it sounded a little rushed, slightly too transparent for my taste, especially the strings, but the woodwinds were beautifully fruity. Mahnke gave a very sorrowful interpretation of this song, conveying the deep melancholy of the music. The fifth movement Der Trunkene im Fruhling (The Drunkard in Spring) sounded more colorful, with more bite and phrases more sharply shaped. Gardner seemed to be painting an expressionist representation of Spring, while Skelton gave a vivid portrayal of a drunken man, who not so much want to live his life to the fullest, but mostly want to drown his despair in alcohol.
And then arrived the final movement, Der Abschied (Farewell), which truly felt like a farewell to life and a long, slow, heart-wrenching journey into death and oblivion. Gardner, Mahnke and the wonderful musicians of the BBC symphony orchestra beautifully conveyed the frailty and the bareness of the music, to the point that it sometimes felt that the musical flow could stop and disintegrate completely. The orchestra sounded darker and shriller, suggesting very intensely the deep anxiety of the music. But in the end, little by little, peace and solace creeped in, bringing a much needed feeling of serenity.