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Kožená Shines, Rattle Struggles, Vienna Phil Sleeps, Mahler Suffers

The final scene from Janáček’s Cunning little Vixen is a lovely curtain raiser before a performance of Das Lied von der Erde. Especially when a cunning little vixen is so readily at hand as it must be for Sir Simon Rattle who programmed this for his Vienna Philharmonic appearance at the Wiener Konzerthaus. Then again, Magdalena Kožená wasn’t technically being particularly foxy in the Cunning little Vixen excerpt, but instead took on the rôles of (surviving) Innkeeper and (new generation) Froggy. Simon Keenlyside sang his Forester’s part securely under the eyes of Michael Schade who stolidly impersonated the Schoolmaster in place of the indisposed Christian Elsner. The Vienna Philharmonic played a little loud for Kožená to be heard well, at least for anyone sitting in the boxes to the left and (too) close to the stage. The result was charming if anodyne, routine, and not the last word in expressiveness. The last word had, in any case, Kožená’s little stuttering frog: Oni mně o vás… veveveve, oni mně o vás vevevekládali.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde,
R.Kubelik/ BRSO / J.Baker, W.Kmentt

The hope that the orchestra would take back a good deal of volume and increase in cohesion as they lunged into Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, soon gave way to disappointment. The work is difficult and not standard repertoire* for them, and murder for the poor tenor. Schade struggled last time I heard him in Das Lied vis-à-vis Christian Gerhaher, and although he simply isn’t the tenor to sail above a loud orchestra or punch his way through successfully, this time his performance amounted to fine, valiant struggle and then some.

Still, it’s a lot easier for the low voice to shine, whether baritone or mezzo. The “Trinklied” and “Von der Jugend” were expressive, as Mme. Kožená’s employed all the many expressive tools her voice has—and to decent effect. In the most grateful piece “Der Abschied”—the one that can (almost) salvage the whole “Symphony for Voices and Orchestra”—there were several undeniable moments as Kožená soared, caressed, and whispered. But Rattle and the Viennese band never seemed to gel and the orchestra delivered only a decent performance without highlights, repeatedly sounding harsh and piercing and disengaged. Das Lied von der Erde deserves—and crucially needs—more.

* There have only been twelve times they performed Das Lied between the 80s and 2010—the least performed Mahler of the WPh in that period along with the Eighth.