Songs of a burning heart

by Barbara Maria Rathbone

klimt - Death and Life

London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski

Royal Festival Hall 31.05.09

Apart from my abiding passion for French music, particularly of the Fin de siècle, I have a long established attraction to late Austro-German Romanticism and Expressionism since my discovery first of Mahler at the age of eleven, to be ensued by the wider frame of the Second Viennese School (I have happily managed to combine all these passions in my novel).  Last night’s LPO programme , which was a ambitious concoction of the drive of early German Romanticism in Mendelssohn’s affirmative 5th Symphony ‘Reformation’, to the existential angst and spiritual yearning of Todtenfeier, the earlier incarnation of the first movement of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony ‘Resurrection’, to be concluded in its UK premiere by Tortsen Rasch’s symphonic song cycle – Mein Herz Brennt, was particularly alluring.

Jurowski’s reading of the Mendelssohn was spritely but smooth.  Here we have the posthumously published work of the Jewish to Lutheran convert Mendelssohn –  ‘Reformation’ is a dedication to the anniversary of the Diet of Augsberg.  It is a work that demarcates a convert’s zeal with an affinity with Bach and looks forward to similar parallels in Wagner’s Parsifal, somewhat discomforting in view of the latter’s anti-Semitism.   The Andante introduction is reverential and chorale-like but extends into somewhat unconnected middle movements with dance-like characters, before returning to its earlier themes, with variations on the ‘Dresden Amen’ from the opening movement as a grand finale in D major, like a Lutheran hymn recapitulating its pious journey.

Mahler created Todtenfeier with a symphonic poem in mind, realised quite independently, although it would later exist with some small changes, as the first movement of the 2nd Symphony.  It has the somewhat German pagan reference point of the Todtenfeier or Funeral Ceremony, though he combined this idea with the apposite Christian sentiments of Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode in the finished Symphony (Mahler was also a Jewish to Christian convert).  The LPO with Jurowski’s jerky but willowy energy, gave their reading a rounded and powerful sound, so much so that we could already feel something digging into elements of the late Romantic-Expressionism to come, due in no uncertain terms to Jurowski’s  prophetic  juxtaposition of the three works in this concert.

So far we have covered two ‘R’s’, what of the third?  The programme concluded in the second half with the UK premiere of Torsten Rasch’s Mein Herz Brennt, a work by a Dresden born composer known for film scores, a long stint in Japan and a collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys, using the lyrics of songs of the German industrial rock band, Rammstein.   It is already known by a recording but finally we had the support of a full orchestra with two of the original soloists, the marvellous bass René Pape and the reciter, the redoubtable,  Lotte Lenya-esque actress Katharina Thalbach (who I note directed Rasch’s only opera Rotter in Cologne recently – I can’t wait to see it here).

It is a vast and sometimes disturbing work but there seems to be something for everyone, and Rasch certainly delivers some sublime melody, a lot of it redolent of the sound worlds of Berg,  Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker.  The Rammstein texts were feisty and vulgar, sometimes delicate and romantic,  and not exactly the calibre of Heine or Rilke, but worked well within the textures Rasch had given them.  The soloists were dynamic,  enjoying the interplay of music and text – apart from the amplified bass soloist, a soprano, Elisabeth Meister , appeared to deliver her enchanting Lorerei song in Seemann atop the orchestra and affront of the organ console; here was Rasch at his most lush – a beautiful effect when her voice combined with Pape’s over the orchestra.  Thalbach was simply magnificent, particularly in the use of her growling modal voice in the seventh song – Ich will. I did however, feel the work was overlong, with long gaps for setting up and movement of added forces.

So what might the third R be?  Might it be, after Reformation, then Resurrection, redemption?  The Germanic soul through the centuries from the Reformation, Enlightenment (Resurrection?) to the years we now know beyond the voices of all that went before.  Redemption is after all apposite for a reunified Germany still strongly associated with the scars of barely two decades, spun out here again in an orchestral palette of swirling colour like a Klimt canvas to the words of the ‘pagan’ rockers.  It got me, and I hope I got it.

Nebel from \’Mein Herz Brennt\’ René Pape, Dresden Symphony, c. Torsten Rasch