Edinburgh International Festival
Saturday 6 August only
The Australian Chamber Orchestra is directed and led from the first violin by Richard Tognetti: they were offering Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, the latter in an arrangement for chamber orchestra which Schoenberg worked on in the 1920s, but which was not realised in performance till June 1983, when Rainer Reich’s performing version based on Schoenberg’s notes received its world premiere as part of the Toblach Mahler festival.
Wagner wrote his Idyll for his wife Cosima’s birthday, conducting a small group of musicians in its first performance on the staircase of their house, and for years it was kept as the private celebration of their relationship. Financial constraints finally forced them to publish, and I personally am sorry for this: I find it rambling and self-indulgent, like the rest of his music, though it does have a little more melody than much of the rest of his work. It received rapturous applause, so I guess I was not a typical audience member at that point.
The Mahler was something else again! It was my first experience of this work, and it knocked me – and the rest of the audience – out completely. I loved the pared-down chamber accompaniment, with its glorious texture and colour, alive to every nuance of the score, and never overwhelming the voices. Stuart Skelton’s Heldentenor easily rode above the orchestra’s loudest passages – a glorious voice, expressively colouring the text. Alice Coote was, as ever, magnificent, her fabulous mezzo floating gently and soaring triumphantly, radiating joy and pouring out sorrow.
Mahler set six poems based on works by 8th century poets of the T’ang dynasty: the first five are snapshots of earthly life in all its moods – a drinking song commenting that “dark is life, and so is death”; loneliness in autumn; friends drinking in a pavilion in the middle of a pool and reflected in the water; young maidens picking flowers and admiring the young men riding by; and a man drinking his life away. In the final poem, dusk is falling as the poet waits to bid a final farewell to a dear friend. These are not simple song-settings, but extended movements of a symphonic work which celebrates life in all its glory and the pain which suffuses it.
It’s a fabulous work, superbly performed, which was received with a long moment of complete silence before the audience erupted into a prolonged storm of applaus