Gentle into the night
Gustav Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Gustav Mahler: Kindertötenlieder
Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone)
Kent Nagano (conductor)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, Berlin
The first of the two concerts by Kent Nagano and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester (in the Barbican Great Performers series) was inevitably dedicated to the memory of the Queen Mother, whose funeral took place earlier in the day. There was perhaps a slight tension when the dedication and an additional item were announced at the start, since the traditional scrambled "Nimrod" would have been camp in the extreme. But instead we heard "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen", from Des Knabens Wunderhorn, which suited the mood of the audience perfectly. Mahler's high Victorian sentiment, straddling direct if conventional emotion and soggy sentimentality, seems to belong to a benign and genuinely popular stream of feeling that, surprisingly to many, emerged collectively after the Queen Mother's death. Maybe her Edwardian upbringing and the progressive-German influenced culture of the royal family into which she married had Mahlerian resonances, whose last echoes in popular culture were heard today.
Ironically, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen has a funereal march as its last movement, but, far from being ceremonial mourning, it is the depressive self-indulgence of a bereft youth in an emotional whiteout. The final scene is under a lime tree that casts its blossom, though, and there is a fine romantic balance throughout between the conventional jollity of the beloved's wedding to another and the beauty of the countryside in spring on the one hand and the anger of the spurned lover fleeing rejection on the other. Kent Nagano directed the DSO in a performance that leaned (sometimes limped) heavily towards the lugubrious and reflective. The tweety birds in the second song bared registered. But the depressive clarity was strangely appropriate much of the time, and the anger of "Ich hab' ein glühend Messer" emerged organically.
Nagano's unusual approach was fully justified because it left room for an utterly beautiful, expressive performance by Thomas Quasthoff. An occasional trill or turn reminded you that Quasthoff's technique is superb, but most of the time it was like listening to feeling itself, partly expressed in language and partly intuited though sympathy. Quasthoff's singing, in fact, had all the richness and occasional roughness of talking to a friend. His high notes are thin, but still beautiful and seamless, while his bass baritone register is rock solid, full and glorious but perfectly controlled, fading away heartbreakingly into adolescent despair at the end.
Kindertötenlieder is a more mature work than Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. The voice is that of a parent who has lost young children, though Mahler had no children when he wrote the songs. Both the sense of loss and the attempt to find joy in sadness are gentler and more complex, free of the attention-seeking gestures of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, and far more moving. Rükert's poetry, although he poured it out in bulk, is also better made that Mahler's heartfelt but conventional text: Rükert's commonplaces have an economy and balance, and often a lifelike return to the point of pain.
Singing Kindertötenlieder in the second concert, Quasthoff seemed to be adding less expression to what was already there, and simply singing the music as it was. Again, Nagano and the DSO contributed mainly by keeping elegantly out of the way, emerging at the points where the orchestral music says what the singer's cannot. At times, the avoidance of obvious sentiment seemed too much: these are art songs, but (as Mahler's life as well as Rükert's showed) they are about something that was, and is, immediate to many. Although the loss of your own child is rarer than it was, it still happens often enough that most people can recognise it as the most overwhelming possible experience, one that raises the most profound questions about your own being and the nature of life. Quasthoff's enormous achievement was to express this from within the music, his beautiful voice embodying sadness.