This live performance was given in the Royal Festival Hall, London, in February 2011. The London Philharmonic has a proud Mahler tradition – they were Tennstedt’s orchestra in the 1980s – and they have released some excellent Mahler performances recently on their house label (notably Jurowski’s readings of Symphonies 1 and 2). This is another. Nézet-Séguin’s pacing of this work (with one arguable exception) is pretty much perfect. How neatly he places the explosive transition into the veritable circus march at the point in Von der Schönheit where the poem depicts a galloping steed plunging through the countryside. The all-important closing section of Der Abschied is well done too: not drawn out interminably but allowed to wind down to its last fading sixth chord in a truly affecting manner. The orchestra plays with great precision and expression throughout.
The soloists are also very good. Toby Spence (to my surprise) reveals himself to have the burnished heldentenor voice required for his first and third songs, with a ringing top but also plenty of strength in the middle register. He knows what he is singing about, finding the undercurrent of desperation (just as Sarah Connolly beautifully expresses the melancholy at the heart of her songs). Spence lightens his tone easily for Von der Jugend, but I think Nézet-Séguin rushes this song a fraction too much for its open high spirits to be fully enjoyed. Maybe that’s the point? Spence sounds extraordinarily like another British tenor, Richard Lewis, who recorded the cycle under Fritz Reiner in the 1960s.
Connolly’s fast vibrato makes her sound like a singer from a past Golden Age. She has the power when needed and the ability to refine her tone down to a silver thread of sound – so crucial in the long final song. Her plangent tone suits this music well. Of course, there is much competition on disc. How you respond to a particular singer’s tone colour is often the deciding factor. Many people still swear by Kathleen Ferrier or Janet Baker, but even in such august company Connolly holds her own and has many glorious moments. It is worth remembering too that this is a live performance where singers had to reach out to an audience, a situation that precludes certain subtleties designed for the microphone.
In summary, this is an impressive new version of Mahler’s great symphonic song cycle with distinguished work from everyone. The sound is well balanced, and there is not a peep out of the audience.