Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Mahler)

Wigmore Chamber Music Series (PIAF)

Winthrop Hall


reviewed by Neville Cohn


In the minds of many concertgoers, Mahler is inextricably associated with the writing of lengthy symphonies often calling for gigantic forces. But he was no less effective, size-wise, at the opposite end of the spectrum. His beautifully fashioned settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn are some of the most enchanting gems of the lieder repertoire.

Twelve of these mini-masterpieces were on offer at Winthrop Hall with Paul Kildea presiding over a chamber orchestra (playing James Olsen’s new arrangement of Mahler’s piano originals). The vocal soloists were New Zealand bass Paul Whelan and British mezzo soprano Pamela Helen Stephen in a sometimes uneven presentation.

Whelan, as concertgoers discovered on hearing him as Jesus in Bach’s St Matthew Passion earlier in the Festival, has a colossal voice – but whereas this powerful instrument was appropriately reined in to blissful effect the other evening in Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, in the first of the Mahler lieder – Reveille – his voice, perhaps due to a misjudgement of Winthrop Hall’s acoustics, tended to over-loudness although the accompaniment brought out the best in most of the 12-strong instrumental ensemble.

But if Whelan’s opening lied lacked some finesse, his skilled and imaginative use of a remarkably supple voice did wonders for St Anthony Preaching to the Fishes. Here, Whelan, a dab hand at vocal acting, struck interpretative gold recounting the tale of the saint leaving an empty church for the water’s edge to sermonise to a swarming congregation of sea creatures who listen intently to his words before fish, crabs, and turtles return to their flawed existences.

It was Mahler, I think, who said that in music it is easy to be interesting but difficult to be beautiful. Here, he succeeds in being both, the sinuousness of the accompanying instrumental lines triggering mind’s-eye images of fish darting through the water. In The Drummer Boy, Whelan was beyond conventional criticism in conveying the terror and despair of one of Mahler’s darkest visions.

A thousand flowers, as the Chinese say, to arranger Olsen whose orchestration of the piano accompaniments was altogether satisfying, not least for its graceful obeisance to Mahler’s own idiosyncratic handling of instruments.

It is perhaps invidious to single out individuals in what was very much a group effort but it would be ungracious not to specially point to Allan Meyer’s consistently fine, immaculately pitched clarinet line, Malcolm Stewart’s enchanting way with the French horn and Michael Black’s discreet but telling artistry at the harmonium, its instantly recognisable, wheezing tone adding an extra frisson to the listening experience.

Although there was much to admire in mezzo soprano Pamela Stephen’s line, not least her meticulous attention to clear enunciation of the words, there seemed at times a focus more on technical finesse than revealing the interior mood of whatever she happened to be singing.

One listened largely in vain, for instance, for the wheedling archness that is the essence of Verlorne Muh – and there was some loss of vocal power in the lower reaches of the range in The Sentinel’s Nightsong. But in Das irdische Leben, the anguish of a mother watching her child succumb to starvation was impressively suggested.

Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn

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