Christian Gerhaher, Bernard Haitink / Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Mozart / Mahler
KKL Lucerne, 2017-08-15
I was happy to attend another concert with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (COE, see also Wikipedia for information) under the baton of its Honorary Conductor, Bernard Haitink (*1929). This was the second of two concerts in sequence, both part of this year’s Lucerne Festival, and both also featuring the baritone Christian Gerhaher (*1969, see again Wikipedia for additional information).
Two days before, the same artists had started the concert with the Symphony No.36 in C major, K.425, a.k.a. “Linz Symphony” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791). After the intermission, that concert continued (together with the soprano Anna Lucia Richter) with a selection of the “Wunderhorn Lieder“ by Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911).
One can certainly see the program in that first concert as a logical or chronological progression—whichever additional link or relation one may see or construct between the two composers and/or their works. The chronological sequence follows the evolution of the music. One can therefore assume that listeners can “follow the evolution”, which makes this sequence a logical one.
The Program in this Concert
Here now, the program again featured Mozart—even two symphonies this time. And again Lieder by Gustav Mahler complemented Mozart’s orchestral music. However, this time, shifting Gustav Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder in-between two Mozart symphonies made up for a strange, or at least very interesting, program. We can assume that the Mozart symphonies were a given. They may be Haitink’s focal point with the COE this year. Maybe the combination with Mahler was almost a coincidence, a consequence of Christian Gerhaher appearing in concerts with Haitink and the COE?
Yes, it’s the same two historic periods as in the previous concert. But how could one possibly play Mozart’s “Prague” symphony with its combination of serenity and theater atmosphere after Mahler’s fin de siècle songs? I felt that this could only possibly work because the intermission was programmed between the Rückert-Lieder and the second Mozart symphony. Luckily, in the end, my concerns turned out to be pointless—the program worked just fine.
Bernard Haitink’s Conducting
Expectedly, it was once more pure pleasure to watch the COE in cooperation with its Honorary Conductor, Bernard Haitink. Not just the cooperation itself turned out to be gratifying to observe: already the engagement within the orchestra was gratifying by itself, as was its joy of playing, the initiative of the musicians.
The mutual understanding between the ensemble and the conductor was excellent. Haitink conducted with small, economic, yet precise and clear gestures. His right hand firmly held the baton, while the left hand served to form and control dynamics and phrasing.
Of course, the key part of the conductor’s work happened prior to the concert, in the rehearsals: communicating how he wants the orchestra to play, defining all the details about articulation, phrasing, dynamic balance, and more. In the concert, he can only correct nuances, maybe set the pace, help the orchestra to adjust the dynamics, the balance to the acoustics of the venue (in rehearsals, the acoustics are not the same). While the conductor’s power during the actual performance is limited, there is still a strong interaction between the conductor and the orchestra. And in this, with the COE, the very attentive and active concertmaster, Lorenza Borrani, was an important supporter for the conductor, and a mediator between Haitink and the orchestra.
Haitink’s performances exist outside of the discussion around historically informed playing. Haitink is 88. At this age, it is certainly justifiable for him to leave the discussion around HIP performances to others. This includes the discussion around what is “historically correct”, the never-ending search for the “original sound” (which will always remain elusive matter), etc.
That said, one cannot deny that recent insights in what the original sound, and possibly (presumably) the composer’s intent, have had their influence on Bernard Haitink’s interpretations. For example: the orchestral setting with the two violin voices facing each other at the front of the podium, as it was customary in the classical and romantic periods. The instruments were modern, but the articulation is light, the dynamic contours clear, the sound transparent. One could almost talk of a setting close in character to chamber music.
In 1776, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) was commissioned to write a serenade for the Haffner family, on the occasion of a wedding. We now know this as the “Haffner Serenade” (Serenade No.7) in D major, K.250. That serenade was so successful that 1782, Mozart was asked to write another work for the same family. He wrote another serenade—but missed the deadline, as he was “stressed out” at the time. At the end of that year, Mozart took up that 6-movement serenade again, and reworked it completely, for a public performance. The result was the Symphony No.35 in D major, K.385, “Haffner symphony“ that we heard in this concert. The work (which premiered in 1783 in Vienna) features four movements:
- Allegro con spirito (4 + 110 bars, 2/2)
- Andante (35 + 49 bars, 2/4)
- Menuetto (8 + 16 bars, 3/4) — Trio (8 + 20 bars, 3/4)
- Presto (264 bars, 2/2)
What I said above about the sound of the orchestra, the light articulation, etc. was obvious right from the first bars, and throughout the symphony: Apollonian clarity and lucidity. In this symphony, the strings were largely dominating the sound, the wind instruments mostly just added extra colors. Haitink chose the “golden middle way” between romantic legato and a dry staccato articulation (as one may sometimes observe in historically informed performances). One could call this a “healthy, inconspicuous portato“.
In this context, the music did not appear as consciously articulated. Phrasing and articulation were self-evident, i.e., something that one did not consciously perceive as a “feature”. As he avoided all romantic clumsiness, Haitink’s tempo choices were natural, fluent, slender—occasionally even on the fast side.
Actually, throughout the evening, nothing was ever overblown. The focus was on the subtleties, the soft tones. The dynamic shadings in the symphony ranged from p to f—that’s all that Mozart requested in the score. Also in terms of agogics, Haitink’s interpretation remained inconspicuous, and his endings remained natural, avoiding excessive broadening in the last bars.
I. Allegro con spirito
Mozart initially had repeat signs around the first part, but later removed them again in the autograph. Haitink reverted this, repeating the exposition as customary in the regular sonata form. We don’t know why Mozart removed the repeat. In any case, with Haitink’s fluent tempo, two passes through the exposition absolutely made sense. Haitink also observed all other repeat signs in Mozart’s scores.
Haitink’s pace in the second movement at first appeared fast (almost). However, the score specifies 2/4 time, so the tempo was actually correct, even though it is tempting to read the melody in 4/8 time. I found it remarkable, how cleanly and precisely the second violins and the violas executed the fast demisemiquaver runs, even in the softest p. Note that with Mozart it is not unusual to find the second violin part harder to play than the first violins!
III. Menuetto — Trio
As expected, this was not a boisterous, scherzo-like dance, but almost elegant, never more than f, with clear sf accents. In the Menuetto and in the Trio, both parts were repeated, but of course no repeats in the Menuetto da capo.
Clearly, the final Presto is the most demanding movement, technically. Haitink took this at a sporty, virtuosic pace. It was actually at the limit of what the orchestra can do. True, it’s a Presto in alla breve notation (2/2 time), so Haitink’s tempo was correct (he was conducting entire bars)—and so, he demanded the utmost. The articulation remained just about clear. However, differentiated articulation, shaping motifs, etc. was simply impossible at this pace. However, we can safely assume that orchestras at Mozart’s time weren’t any better or more virtuosic. In that sense, the performance was indeed “historically correct”!
Around 1901, Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) composed a set of songs for voice and orchestra, based on poems by Friedrich Rückert (1788 – 1866). He composed five songs, which premiered in 1905. The orchestration of the last one (“Liebst du um Schönheit“) is not by Mahler himself, but by Max Puttmann (an employee of the publisher). These are the songs, as conceived for the premiere:
- Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! (Do not look at my songs!)
voice, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, harp, violins 1 + 2/viola/cello (all con sordino)
- Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft (I breathed a gentle fragrance)
voice, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, celesta, harp, violin/viola (both con sordino)
- Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world)
voice, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, harp, violins 1 + 2/viola/cello/double bass
- Um Mitternacht (At midnight)
voice, 2 flutes, oboe d’amore, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contra-bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, harp & piano
- Liebst du um Schönheit (If you love for beauty)
voice, 2 oboes, oboe d’amore, 2 clarinets, 2 horns, harp, violins 1 + 2/viola/cello/double bass
In 1910, the Lieder they appeared in print, along with two additional songs from the Wunderhorn collection. Universal Edition later reverted to the five Rückert songs, which justifies the title “Rückert-Lieder“.
As already mentioned in the introductory remarks about the program, the Rückert-Lieder transported the audience from the classic lucidity and clarity of the Mozart symphony into the world after the turn to the 20th century. Mahler completely delved into the introverted, intimate atmosphere of Rückert’s poems. In line with that intimacy, the instrumentation of the songs is scarce, but delicate, careful, diligent.
In a sensible decision, Bernard Haitink and his soloist, Christian Gerhaher, did not perform the five songs in the order in which Mahler published them: they moved song III (the well-known “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen“) to the end of the series:
I. Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!
Despite the introverted, pensive nature of these songs, Haitink’s tempo isn’t excessively slow. He does not celebrate, keeps the music uncluttered, observing the “Sehr lebhaft” (very lively) annotation in this first song. In this setting, and with this music, Christian Gerhaher has no need to switch to a “big” voice. Most of the time, he remains in the p, almost at sotto voce level. Yet, his voice is always projecting, remains impressive, even though he keeps it intimate.
The text is always clearly understandable also down in the p, even without excessive “actor’s diction”—almost effortless, it seems. In emotional segments, when he wants to build up expression, Christian Gerhaher uses intensity and focus, rather than volume. It’s in such music where the strength of the acoustics in the White Hall of the KKL comes to full bearing!
II. Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft
The second song, “I breathed a gentle fragrance” was airy, cagey and discreet: an idyl, and like a nice-smelling still life—very atmospheric!
IV. Um Mitternacht
Only in this song IV, “At midnight”, Gerhaher took the chance to build broad, gentle arches, up to a f. He managed to keep the tension—so much that even the string players (without task in this segment) appeared to be totally captured and enchanted by the music. And only towards the end, the music expands to a larger scope, allows the singer to build up to an impressive fff climax. It’s the dramatic culmination in the entire song cycle. Its intensity and character reminded me of scenes from Wagner’s operas (some scenes in “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, or maybe in “Tristan und Isolde”?).
V. Liebst du um Schönheit
The poem in “If you love for beauty” appears somewhat less profound than the others (was this the reason why the composer did not do the orchestration for this Lied?). But on the other hand, this opened the opportunity for Christian Gerhaher to develop and enjoy some cantilenas (the closest to conventional Lied singing in this cycle!): melodious sound at its best!
III. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
Placing Lied III, “I am lost to the world”, at the end of the cycle undoubtedly was the only option here. The songs formed the end-point to the first part of the concert. Mahler’s annotation is “Äußerst langsam und zurückhaltend” (extremely slowly and retained), and the notation is in 4/4 time. That is hardly doable at all, as the singer would run out of breath. On top of that, any melodic line would be stretched beyond measure. The only viable solution seems to be, to apply the annotation to 2/2 time—as also Bernard Haitink did.
The conductor avoided celebrating this music: his focus was on the intensity and the atmosphere. This allowed the cor anglais to indulge in the cantilenas, to let them flourish. For Christian Gerhaher, this was the last part of his short appearance (too short, really!): he concluded his recital in the softest of tones, while maintaining his intensity even in the sotto voce: otherworldly and immensely touching, indeed!
Needless to say that the last song made any encore impossible. This is good, as people left the hall for the intermission, with the intensity, the atmosphere of this last song in their mind, their heart.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) composed his Symphony No.38 in D major, K.504, known as “Prague Symphony” ten years after the “Haffner Symphony”, K.385, in 1786. The premiere was in the following year, in Prague. In contrast to the “Haffner Symphony”, this one only has three movements:
- Adagio (36 bars, 4/4) — Allegro (106 + 160 bars, 4/4)
- Andante (58 + 90 bars, 6/8)
- Finale: Presto (151 + 199 bars, 2/4)
But the differences go deeper: K.385 has its origins in a serenade, which can still be felt in the symphony. Here, however, the listener feels in a theater, in an opera!
I. Adagio — Allegro
The last point above is obvious with this first movement, which really feels like the overture to an opera, particularly in the slow introduction: it raises expectations, does not feature and develop real themes, merely plays with motifs, melodic fragments (as if it was quoting from an opera to follow!). Then, with the Allegro, it feels as if the curtain was lifted, all of a sudden, opening the view onto a scene with lively, vivid, refreshing action.
The second movement is Apollonian music, again in classic sonata form. Initially, it is entirely serene, restrained in dynamics, devoid of extremes. Later in the movement, in the development part, though, Mozart could not resist inserting dissonances, even pranks in harmony. Of course, for today’s ears, it almost takes a conscious effort to perceive / understand Mozart’s pranks as such!
III. Finale: Presto
In Bernard Haitink’s hands, the Finale turned into an almost boisterous last dance, not unlike the last movement in the “Haffner Symphony”. It’s another Presto in 2/4 time—and again, Haitink pushed the orchestra to its limits. It’s not quite what one might have expected from a 88-year old conductor: had the audience not witnessed him conducting, one might have believed that a youngster in his twenties or thirties was setting the pace!
Encore — Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Scherzo from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream“
Given the almost frenetic applause, Bernard Haitink decided to have the orchestra perform an encore. He chose the famous Scherzo from the incidental music to William Shakespeare‘s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream“, which Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) composed in 1842. I suspect that this Scherzo is well-know primarily because it acts as an orchestral showpiece. And that’s what we heard: Haitink’s almost extreme pace challenged the orchestra’s virtuosity, its ability to maintain coordination, to articulate clearly even in the fastest of staccatos.
Haitink may even have gone a bit over the limits with this,where coordination and articulation started to suffer. Nevertheless it was a bravura performance, particularly on the part of the flutist Clara Andrada de la Calle, who received an extra applause for her solo. The final, standing ovation was well-deserved, indeed.
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.