City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Das Lied von der Erde, Queen's Hall, Review

By Barbara Bryan - Posted on 17 March 2013

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Queen's Hall
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Robin Ticciati - conductor: Members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Karen Cargill (Mezzo Soprano), Toby Spence (Tenor)
Running time: 

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are celebrating their fortieth anniversary and they have indeed come a long way over the years to become one of the best chamber orchestras in the country. Robin Ticciati, their Principal conductor, who is going to be with the orchestra for at least another five years, enjoys the special relationship he has with the musicians and he chose an interesting programme for this concert juxtaposing lightheartedness with soul searching.

Haydn’s Symphony No 60 in C major, began the concert. Nicknamed ‘Il Distratta’ it is in six movements and frequently alternates between calm and frenetic moods which is challenging for the musicians and the conductor, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves. It is as if Haydn couldn’t make up his mind as to the structure of the composition and decided to put as many differentials as possible to create an interesting musical flavour. Hence the reputation this is his ‘mad’ symphony.

Ticciati has now introduced Mahler into the SCO’s repertoire and the final piece on the programme was Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde – The Song of the Earth.” It was composed at a particularly painful period in Mahler’s life and he wrote at the time: “I think it is probably the most personal composition I have created thus far.”

Composed in 1908, two years before he died, the music - a song-cycle and symphony – was the first of its kind to integrate the two styles. In six separate movements, with two soloists, a tenor and Mezzo Soprano, Mahler was inspired to write the composition having read Hans Berthge’s translation of ancient Chinese poetry which dealt with the aesthetics of life and he chose seven poems, two of which are used in the finale

The soloists in the performance were the tenor Toby Spence and the mezzo soprano Karen Cargill, both of whom sang in perfect German without a score. The first song “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery” with its refrain “Dark is life, is death” oscillates between joy and melancholy and is particularly challenging for the tenor as it pushes his range to the utter limits against the backdrop of a full orchestra. Toby Spence gave a superlative performance, his voice effortlessly rising above the music.

The second song is a reflection on the fragility of life and the isolation one can feel in desolate times. The mood lifts in the third, fourth and fifth songs and the finale, “Der Abschied” (The Farewell) is reputed to be one of the most profound pieces of music Mahler ever wrote.

It has the meditative theme of leave-taking, with the symphonic interlude mirroring a funeral march It is a particularly challenging piece to conduct even Mahler said to a conducting colleague: “Do you know how to conduct this? Because I certainly don’t.”

At the end of the composition, where one imagines Mahler’s journey to be finally resolved, and the orchestra is reduced to just strings, mandolin, harps and celesta, Ticiatti tenderly encourages the musicians to play gently to match Karen Cargill’s sublime voice, which she reduces to a pitch that is barely audible when she sings the last stanza …”Everywhere and forever brightly blue the horizons,” and then Mahler’s own words, which conclude the piece are repeated like a mantra “Eternally…ever….ever… ever.”

A reverential two minute silence at the end, before Ticciati lowered his baton, emphasised the profundity of this extraordinary piece of music which was performed par excellence by the musicians.