Cornelius Meister / Philharmonia Zürich
Haydn: Symphony No.103, “Drumroll”; Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Zurich Opera House, 2014-12-14
2016-07-30 — Brushed up for better readability
This was the third Philharmonic Concert that the orchestra of the Zurich Opera House, Philharmonia Zürich, offered in this season. The ensemble was conducted by the young Cornelius Meister (*1980), who studied and graduated in Hannover and Salzburg. He has since held positions in Erfurt, Hannover, Heidelberg, and finally with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. He is also pursuing a career as guest conductor, which in 2012 also took him to the Zurich Opera, where he conducted Richard Strauss’ Salome. Since then, he is making regular appearances here in Zurich, currently with a new production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.
Haydn: Symphony No.103, “Drumroll”
The first composition in this concert was the Symphony No.103 in E♭ major, “Drumroll”, by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809). The evening started with that drum roll: loud and persistent, followed by a rest. In the concert notes, Meister explained that given the nickname of the symphony he preferred this over the option to have the percussionist perform an introductory cadenza. The score writes “Intrada“, leaving it open whether this more than a simple roll. After this loud “bang”, cellos and basses started the Adagio introduction: slow, almost hesitant, searching. Was it just the listener’s ear that had to get used to the acoustics, or were the musicians indeed using a little more vibrato to allow for the intonation to settle? It is a tricky start!
But after a few bars, the musicians seemed reaffirmed, the feeling of insecurity had vanished. Throughout the Haydn symphony, vibrato was applied very sparingly. The ultimate affirmation and change in spirit occurred with the Allegro con spirito, which featured a fast tempo, almost too much pushing forward. My impression was that the conductor was focusing on keeping the freshness and the drive in this music. Working out the ultimate detail in articulation and phrasing of motifs and figures seemed to be a secondary priority. The drum roll returns at the start of the coda. I found it a nice idea to have that performed pp, like a remote echo / memory from the beginning.
Movements 2 – 4
The second movement, Andante più tosto Allegretto, is a set of variations. The theme was relatively heavy, a slow Andante. The following, first variation, though, was noticeably faster (Andante, poi Allegretto??). More tempo changes followed, sometimes almost feeling like rubato. I found these tempo changes exaggerated, put-on, “artificial” / arbitrary, especially the accelerandi or ritardandi at the end of a variation. The score is devoid of tempo changes in that movement.
The last movement, another Allegro con spirito, but alla breve, starts with a four-bar, heavy horn signal. The theme follows in the violins, with light articulation. For a few bars, there were slight coordination issues, but this was really just momentarily. Overall, the orchestra played very well in this symphony. It was essentially a conventional performance, with clear influences by findings from recent historically informed practice (HIP): light articulation, limited use of vibrato, with refreshing tempo. All under the attentive and vivid direction by Cornelius Meister.
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Haydn’s Symphony No.103 is one of Haydn’s last contributions to this genre. After the intermission, this light-hearted, classical work was followed by another late composition: Das Lied von der Erde, by Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911). That’s a series of six Lieder for solo voice and orchestra, alternating between tenor and alto. It’s a composition filled with both eagerness for life, as well as sadness, parting and loss: a work in which Mahler “digested” events in a very dark period in his life. He lost his job in Vienna, his eldest daughter died, and he was told that he was suffering from a congenital heart disease. The poems for this composition were selected from Chinese poetry, collected by Hans Bethge under the title “Die chinesische Flöte” (The Chinese Flute).
Stuart Skelton, Tenor
Songs 1, 3, and 5 were sung by the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton (*1968), an operatic Heldentenor, experienced stage singer with a strong voice, good presence, and expressiveness. The one limitation was that his German text was hard to understand. As a listener, one felt compelled to open the notes to follow the poems. Without the underlying text, Skelton’s gestures and vivid facial expressions make little sense. The first Lied, “Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” (The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery), is boisterous on the surface. But it’s not just a drinking song, but rather describing the thirst for life, with clear signs of despair.
Lied No.3 “Von der Jugend” (Of Youth) is more lyrical and also pictorial. It opened an opportunity opportunity for Skelton to expose his talent as actor on stage. The tempo was relatively fast, though, and didn’t quite fit the contemplative nature of the poem. Lied No.5, finally, “Der Trunkene im Frühling” (The Drunken Man in Spring), was Skelton’s best performance that evening. Even though one started to realize that he was slightly indisposed. This forced him to sing a high pp with falsetto voice. Apart from this one incident (which I can’t blame him for), I quite liked his performance.
Elisabeth Kulmann, Alto
The three other songs we encountered Elisabeth Kulmann, an Austrian singer who started her career in 2001 (after completing her studies), as soprano. In 2004, she switched to mezzo-soprano and alto roles. She does both opera (mainly) as well as concerts. Unfortunately, her three demanding songs did not meet my expectations. The circumstances were not optimal, particularly the dry, analytical acoustics of the (small) Zurich Opera House (something she should be familiar with). The orchestra should have lowered the volume, especially in the soft solo sections. I also suspected a slight indisposition of the singer.
I got the impression that in the soft, low sections she was lacking presence. In the lower parts also the volume of her voice seemed limited. At the beginning of Lied No.4, “Von der Schönheit” (Of Youth), orchestra and soloist appeared to disagree about the right tempo. At least, I did not have the impression of a controlled, “natural” rubato. I think, one should execute Mahler’s tempo annotations less abruptly, in a more subtle way. Also the diction wasn’t always perfect: sometimes, “s” and “ß” were hard to hear. In the final section of this song, the orchestra lacked tension / suspense, the mystic atmosphere.
The evening ended with the last, longest, and emotionally most demanding Lied, “Der Abschied” (The Farewell). Overall it was mostly a disappointment (for me). Sure, Cornelius Meister was meticulous in following Mahler’s very detailed annotations. But somehow, the music lacked / missed the poetry, the subtlety, the contemplative sadness of this poem and Mahler’s music. Often, the orchestra was too direct, too rhythmic / metric, especially in the wind section. Also, the alto part was often a bit short-winded, lacked the long phrases. She did not keep tension over longer rests. Too bad the singer wasn’t able to present her undoubtedly good voice in a better way. Even though this shouldn’t really matter, it still didn’t help that the tenor was singing his part by heart, while the alto was singing from the score.
As overall impression: I think that for the time being the conductor lacks the wisdom of age for this work. Maybe he also lacks also some of the sense of poetry that one needs to capture the beautiful, highly emotional and touching aspects in Mahler’s late composition.
Did I enjoy this concert? Yes, of course I did, despite the above criticism!
For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.
For the works in this concert I have written separate CD reviews with more in-depth coverage of the composition: