Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Henschel, Randle, La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra/Haenchen

Bozar, Brussels, 19 February 2009 3.5 stars

Dietrich Henschel © Patricia Wilenski, BIAMBelgium's Bozar Music is celebrating the two Mahler anniversaries — the 150th birthday this year and the centenary of his death next year — with a complete cycle of Mahler's symphonic work shared out over two seasons and amongst the country's orchestras. This evening it was the turn of the excellent La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra, moonlighting band from Brussels premier opera house, to perform Mahler's song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde. Soloists were tenor Tom Randle and baritone Dietrich Henschel, under the direction of Hartmut Haenchen.

I heard Randle in the title role of La Monnaie's The Rake's Progress last October and had been rather disappointed in his singing, if not his acting. I was therefore somewhat apprehensive about his participation tonight, and my fears were, sadly, well-founded. Admittedly the first movement of Das Lied, 'Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde', is amongst the trickiest entrees in the tenor repertoire, with its high tessitura and its profoundly demanding strain of emotion and line. With orchestra at full pelt, Haenchen getting things off to a rumbustious start, Randle's repeatedly struggled to be heard in all but the lowest lying points of his music. His projection was weak, with line and accent, where I sat in the middle of the hall at least, murky and near-indiscernible at parts. The voice seemed to be without tonal centre, and thus its character felt denuded. Randle appeared more lost than despairing in these early passages. Things improved significantly in the chinoiserie third movement, however, with Randle exuding a real delight and charm, much more confident in using his instrument with variety of tone and weight now he wasn't struggling over the tumult of the orchestra. Similarly, his scherzo 'Der Trunkene im Frühling' was strong, particularly in how the singer handled the insistent shifts in momentum in the music.

By contrast, from his first imperious entry amidst the restrained and glistening chamber music of Haenchen in 'Der Einsame im Herbst', Henschel radiated confidence and depth. The intelligence of his style has been remarked upon in the past, and here it was no different; text was pointed to accentuate personality, climaxes were comfortable but piercing, character various across the teeming surface of tone and event. Henschel also combined better with the ebbing and flowing around him than did Randle, seemingly more attuned to the rises and falls of the text, and deeply attentive to the detail of his line. Henschel faltered only in his middle movement, the sweet idyll 'Von der Schönheit', where he seemed out of breath in his final cadences, stumbling, rushing out the notes. His 'Der Abscised' finale was soaring though. The singing there was full of character, Henschel comfortable with the tricky phrasing and tempi changes required of him, just like his conductor Haenchen, who drew out a convincing pace and arc of climax, all the while pushing and pulling tempi and dynamic with a flair that made for a thrilling listen. Henschel's voice lacks something in the way of sheen, but its power and command, and his keen musical intelligence, more than compensate.

As I have suggested, Haenchen and the orchestra's performance was robust, committed, and varied. As a group the players moved and slid well, though the occasional missed attack and the consistently thin cello sound dragged the standard down somewhat. The laurels should go to smaller groups of instruments, instead: the oboes (second and sixth movements), horns (second), clarinet (conclusion of the first particularly), the low brass and strings (rarely have I heard such molten, adamantine drones as the ones offered here at various points in the finale), and solo violin and flute (Eric Robberecht and Carlos Bruneel in the scherzo), all absolutely outdid themselves.

The ineffable transcendence so vital to the work sadly stayed just out of reach, the absence felt particularly in the decrescendo at the end of the penultimate movement. Haenchen managed a much more impressive conclusion to the finale (Herschel's 'ewig…ewig' was caressed onto the air), where tone and volume coalesced to vapour. Unfortunately, over-enthusiasts in the crowd ruined it with their immediate, bellowing applause. A solid performance overall then, if too rarely an awe-inspiring one.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: © Patricia Wilenski, BIAM

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