Tonal glamour

Janáček – Final Scene from Příhody lišky Bystroušky

Forester – Gerald Finley

Mrs Pasek, Frog – Anne Sofie von Otter

Schoolmaster – Stuart Skelton

Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde

Anne Sofie von Otter (mez), Stuart Skelton (ten)


Berliner Philharmoniker / Simon Rattle.

Philharmonie, Berlin, Saturday, December 17th, 2011.


This concert marked the start of a weekend of somewhat intense concertgoing here in Berlin.  One of the good things about being in Berlin is that you can buy a bottle of the excellent Munich Augustinerbräu helles beer that I had the pleasure of enjoying the last time I was there for only 89 euro cents from the local branch of Kaisers.  It’s enough to make Canadians and Brits blanch.  If it wasn’t for the hassle of liquid restrictions, I’d bring a few bottles back with me.  Tomorrow I’m attending a performance of Carmen at the Komische Oper and a concert of Bach and Mozart at the Philharmonie.

Tonight however was a concert of Janáček and Mahler.  On paper the program looked exceptionally interesting and so it proved to be tonight.  The Adventures of Vixen Sharpears is one of my favourite operas and one I had the honour of seeing with the greatest of all Janáček interpreters, Charles Mackerras, in the pit.  Rattle is also an experienced Janáček conductor and he lovingly phrased the opening to the final scene aided by some superb wind playing.  Indeed, the tonal glamour was quite remarkable although in the Philharmonie’s generous acoustic I felt that the rougher edges were somewhat dimmed.  Still, it was wonderfully played.  Gerald Finley also showed great tonal glamour as the Forester.  Moreover, he actually gave a sense that he knew what he was singing about.  If there was one thing I didn’t like it was the fact that Rattle didn’t allow the Vixen theme at the very end to soar as it really should.  He was so intent on bringing out all of the other voices in the orchestration – perhaps to portray the multitude of life in the forest – that that wonderful theme was ever so slightly underplayed.  As always, I had tears in my eyes at the end – there’s something about that piece that really moves me, and I really hope to see another staged production very soon.

The Janáček also had the luxury of Anne Sofie von Otter and Stuart Skelton in small roles and it was in the Mahler that they had a chance to shine.  Skelton dispatched his hellishly difficult music with great muscularity.  He rode that awesome Berlin sound with no sense of strain.  I heard great things of his Grimes with ENO and he is certainly a tenor to watch. 

When I read that Von Otter was singing, I was worried that she wouldn’t quite have that vocal refulgence that the greatest Mahler contraltos have.  And yes, for example in ‘Von der Schönheit’ she disappeared at times beneath the orchestra in the lower passages.  There was great compensation though elsewhere.  Her diction and identification with the text were complete and there were many moments, particularly in ‘Der Abschied’ where she soared over the orchestra beautifully.  She has enjoyed a 30-year long career now but I would say that based on tonight’s evidence and that of her Brangäne last year, she is at the peak of her powers.

Rattle’s interpretation was generally well judged, the funereal tempo of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ the exception.  The orchestra played like heroes, particularly Emmanuel Pahud’s flute solos and I believe it was Albrecht Mayer leading the oboes although from my seat I couldn’t be 100% sure.  This was an orchestra, as always, at the top of its game.  The concert ended with those hypnotic ‘ewig’s and in a world where there are so many problems it was a privilege tonight to be transported to a different, better place.


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