Arcana at the Proms – Prom 18: Edward Gardner conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Mahler and Britten

Prom 18: Stuart Skelton (tenor, above), Claudia Mahnke (mezzo-soprano), Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (above)

Britten Piano Concerto Op.13 (1938)
Mahler Das Lied von der Erde (1908-1909)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 1 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) received its Proms premiere in the year 1914, long before the huge upturn his music experienced in the 1960s. It is an example of Sir Henry Wood’s instinct for new music that it reached the Proms so soon, though the programme labelling of the piece as a ‘Henry Wood novelty’ does the work a massive disservice. A certain Benjamin Britten was on to it too, describing in 1937 the impact of its final set of poems, Der Abschied, and how it ‘passes over me like a tidal wave’.

Mahler was one of Britten’s foremost influences, specifically the Fourth Symphony, which you can hear at the Proms later in the season on Sunday 11 August. There is not much Britten this year, but what there was in this concert was brilliantly performed. The Piano Concerto has a youthful spring in its step, treating the instrument equally as a creator of percussion and melody, following in the traditions of Prokofiev and Shostakovich as it does so.

This performance showed it off in full. Leif Ove Andsnes (above), who has lived with the work for 25 years and performed it on his Proms debut in 1992, had its measure. Technically he was superb, leading from the front with an account of targeted bravura, never showing off for the sake of it and always keeping a melodic shape to even the most percussive of chord sequences. Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra offered solid support, if very occasionally falling behind the piano rhythmically – though that could also have been the Royal Albert Hall acoustic playing tricks. The strings were beautifully shaded in the quieter moments of the Impromptu, whose emotional depths hinted at a darker presence behind the technical feats – perhaps the presence of the Second World War, only a few years away.

Andsnes delivered an unexpected encore in the first movement of Mompou’s Suburbis, stylistically close to Ravel and Falla but still evoking its own individual nocturnal scene.

The Mahler followed the interval, lasting just over an hour – but given the quality of the performance the time passed in a flash. To date Edward Gardner’s encounters with Mahler have been relatively minimal, but the natural gravitas he gave to the orchestral writing in Das Lied von der Erde, not to mention the room made for the chamber-like instrumental solos, showed his instincts are ideally suited to the composer. The BBC Symphony Orchestra wind – fully deserving of their curtain call at the end – were on top form, as were the strings, their quiet thoughts during the final song in particular staying rooted in the memory.

Fine as the orchestral playing was, the two singers rightly shared the limelight. Stuart Skelton’s tenor was a thing of wonder, called into high register action at a daringly early stage in proceedings but delivering wholeheartedly from the off. His characterisation of the two drinking songs was spot on, the gestures and body language wholly at one with the words, giving him the creative licence to exaggerate a note or two. Here he had support from BBC Symphony Orchestra leader Igor Yuzefovich, and a suitably inebriated violin solo during Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring). Meanwhile in Von der Jugend (Of Youth) some nimble negotiation by Skelton of Mahler’s score gave the song an invigorating freshness. That he was able to project these natural and very human elements of phrasing without ever sounding contrived spoke volumes for the degree to which he has clearly inhabited this piece, as evidenced in his contribution to the Proms Twitter feed a few hours before.


Mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke (above) was equally assured in her delivery, the voice and its phrasing again completely comfortable with Mahler’s demands in Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely Soul in Autumn) and Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty) before, in the celebrated Der Abschied (The Farewell), time stood still and the music became a thing of wonder. These otherworldly contemplations felt as though they extended from the Arena floor of the Royal Albert Hall right up to the stars, far beyond the dome, and Mahnke’s rapt expression spoke of how she too was experiencing the same transporting effect. Gardner’s operatic instincts stood him in good stead, particularly in the recitative-like sections, where orchestral players held notes like baroque continuo staples, but the overall effect was in aid of the contemplation of life itself.

The rude interjection of a mobile phone did nothing to break the spell, for these two singers, and the 80 or so instrumental singers behind them, had created something very special together.

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