Philharmonia Orchestra, Maazel, Royal Festival Hall

Posted on April 29th, 2011

Watching Lorin Maazel in this the latest instalment of his Philharmonia Mahler cycle was a puzzling and unsettling experience. He was there and yet not there; he was controlled and yet not; he conducted from memory but with a curious detachment. How very strange that music he has loved and lived with all his long and distinguished career should yield so little of its spirit under his wavering baton.

It started so badly with a performance of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder where the singer, Simon Keenlyside (his arm heavily strapped like an ominous portent of further misfortune), was shown little regard on matters of breathing space and orchestral dynamics (generally too loud) and where his fitful phrasing seemed from where I sat to be a direct consequence of Maazel’s indifference to his needs. He conducted very much as though this was an orchestral rehearsal to which the singer was not privy.

Keenlyside for his part was/is not entirely comfortable in these songs, the tricky ascents into head-voice were characterised by an evaporation of actual sound (covered by Maazel) and a lack of projection. A little more give in the phrasing would surely have helped him negotiate these switches of register and given the songs room to breathe. Even the last and greatest of them – “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” – sounded perfunctory: no mystery, no atmosphere, bottom notes failing to speak in the final stanza – an indication surely of growing unease.

The 4th Symphony came and went, Maazel’s reading slipping in and out of focus, too much fussing with the mechanics of Mahler’s very particular tempo-rubato but little sense of the spirit it embodied. Most surprising of all was just how clumsy some of these would-be elegant turns in the music sounded – partly because Maazel was often vague and difficult to read resulting at one point of the first movement in an almost catastrophic unraveling. It’s been a while since I sat through a Mahler performance which, for all the passing beauties of the playing, sounded so insecure.

Even the great slow movement was rendered shapeless, the heart of it growing ever slower to the point where it seemed unlikely we would ever assume the ascendancy. And what kind of conductor disrupts the transfiguring transition from slow movement to finale by stopping to have the soloist (the lovely Sarah Fox) make her entrance? A bored one?

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