REVIEW: Manchester’s Thunderous Mahler

Posted on February 7, 2010

Sunday Times reviewer Paul Driver writes in

“Douglas Boyd conducted the Manchester Camerata in Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler’s symphonic song cycle, in a chamber version begun by Schoenberg, but finished (in 1983) by the conductor Rainer Riehn.

The new work on this occasion was the brief, concise Mosaic, by the young Lebanese, British-born Bushra El-Turk: her structure of freely shuffled fragments, coalescing into quasi-Byzantine chant before dissonantly climaxing, allowed her to incorporate harmony from Das Lied von der Erde and to salute the cross-culturalism of Mahler’s use of Chinese poetry. All 11 commissions are, I believe, responses to Mahler. The others include David Matthews’s Symphony No 7, to go with Mahler’s 7th, and Edward Gregson’s Dream Song, using snippets from Mahler’s 6th. By way of a different gambit, the organist Olivier Latry will improvise on the chant Veni, Creator Spiritus before the choral-orchestral Symphony No 8 based on it.

These vigorous novelties, along with talks, films and supplementary concerts, set the series apart from other Mahler cycles, of which there is no shortage these days, and for which anniversary promptings are hardly needed. Works once rare, then becoming “festival symphonies” outside the run of concertising, are now as common as the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms. Whole cycles of them proliferate. How this came about has not been entirely answered, but the performances I attended in Manchester strengthened my feeling that what Mahler offers, and audiences crave (something rock music can never give), is a total sensory explanation of existence.

Das Lied von der Erde presents such an overview under the aegis of poignancy, transience and farewell. The poignancy of this account was highlighted by the reduced forces: just 16 performers, including a harmonium player who turns to the celesta at the end, and a pianist who sits back much of the time, occasionally and none too plausibly filling in a trumpet or a double-bassoon line. The tenor soloist Peter Wedd and, above all, the mezzo-soprano Jane Irwin assured us of a deeply affecting experience.”

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