Elisabeth Kulman sings Mahler’s R¸ckert-Lieder with Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia

Though this accident was ‘freakish’ (she suffered a blow to the throat),
the consequences led Kulman to reassess the opera singer’s professional,
personal and financial lot: she launched a campaign against the practice of
not paying singers for rehearsals – meaning that illness or indisposition
could result in a singer being financially unrewarded for their hard work
and even, taking in accommodation and other costs, potentially facing
substantial losses – and established Art But Fair, a lobby group
for fair play. Kulman declared, ‘The opera business is an enormous
enterprise. The individual’s room to move is relatively small. As an artist
what concerns me is individual creativity, personal expression,
individuality. Personally, I have discovered for myself that I am best able
to develop my creative potential when I am able to work according to my own
rules and not have to subordinate myself to other structures. It is not,
therefore, a general criticism of the current opera business but rather
recognition of the incompatibility of my personality’s makeup.’ ( translation from the German by Martin Snell).

Prior to this concert given by the Britten Sinfonia under Sir Mark Elder,
at the Barbican Hall, I had not previously heard Kulman perform, in opera
or concert. Her performance of Mahler’s R¸ckert-Lieder – a work
which she presented with Elder and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in
September 2016 – was immaculate: her tone was even across the registers,
the phrases were gracefully sculptured, the tone suggested the pliant
plushness of the softest velvet. Refinement, delicacy, intimacy were the
words which most readily sprang to mind.

But, despite the vocal polish and allure, this was a very ‘polite’
performance. I missed the range of emotions – which might be communicated
through a varying timbre, for example – in the sequence of R¸ckert poems
(not really a ‘cycle’), and Kulman did not communicate a sense of her
personal connection to the texts, though the diction was pristine. There
was peace but not passion: ‘Um Mitternacht’ (At midnight) surely traverses
wider emotional terrain.

That said, Sir Mark Elder did exquisitely balance the intimate
conversations within the small chamber orchestra, as at the start of
‘Blicker mir nicht in die Lieder!’ (Do not look into my songs!) when muted
cello, clarinet oscillations, and flickering oboe and flute acciaccaturas
formed a rarefied interplay, and the prominent, lyrical horn beautifully
complemented the vocal line. ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (I breathed a
gentle fragrance) floated on an airy bed of spare viola and violin
meandering which allowed the woodwind motifs to sweetly make their mark,
and the harp and celeste offered an ethereal closing flourish, evoking the
heady piquancy of the ‘fragrance of line’.

Muted strings and the low-lying vocal line evoked a calm acceptance which
might have shimmered with greater potential intensity at the start of ‘Ich
bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (I am lost to the world). Kulman seemed to
add vocal weight and fullness, though, to ‘Liebst du um Schˆnheit’ (If you
love for beauty), as if reaching out from a world of quiet intimacy. But,
‘Um Mitternacht’ (At midnight) needed to scale more glistening vocal
heights, to provide a counter-weight for the stirring bassoon
contributions, the deliciously dark chromatic tuba and horn descents, and
the heart-stirring rumbles of tuba, double bassoon and timpani towards the
close. Kulman seemed oddly impassive amid such orchestral frissons: there
was undeniable vocal beauty and taste, but where was the ardour, or even
the animation?

This concert marked the start of a four-year project during which Elder and
the Britten Sinfonia will explore the symphonies of Johannes Brahms
(though, strictly, the opening of this series took place the previous
evening in Norwich); alongside a Brahms symphony, a song-cycle by Mahler
and a work by a British composer will throw Brahms’ ‘sound-world’ – which,
in a podcast on the Britten Sinfonia website, Elder describes as warm but
not thick, lithe but not bombastically heroic – into relief.

The second half of the concert thus comprised Brahms’ First Symphony, which
Elder has not previously conducted. This was a delicate reading which
foregrounded the woodwinds’ soothing, pure lyricism and subtle expressive
gestures and in which the strings (at 10, 10, 8, 8, 4, perhaps not exactly
‘Classical’ in dimension) played with judicious use of vibrato and
thoughtful phrasing. Indeed, there was a prevailing sense of ‘care’ and
consideration, as Elder moved from a slightly unsettled first movement,
through the contemplative middle movements, to well-judged ‘arrival’ and
‘resolution’ in the concluding, Allegro no troppo, ma con brio.
There was an exciting and uplifting sense of joy in the final movement
without the sound ever becoming self-indulgently or weightily pompous; and,
one could sense the players’ intellectual and emotional engagement with the
arguments that they were being asked to consider, explore and articulate.

Elder described (in the aforementioned podcast) the first half of the
programme as a ‘Mahler sandwich’, and the concert began with Benjamin
Britten’s arrangement of the second movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony,
titled What the Wild Flowers Tell Me. Britten essentially reduced
the extension orchestration of the original to a delicate chamber-like
dialogue. In this performance, lyricism was complemented by rhythmic
alertness, but the overall effect was one of restraint and Elder did not
really establish a strong musical mien – though perhaps this is because
this single emblem of Mahler’s monumental, magnificent work feels a little
‘adrift’ from its symphonic moorings.

As someone who believes that anything composed by Gerald Finzi is worth
hearing, I was pleased to have the opportunity to enjoy the composer’s
orchestral elegy, The Fall of the Leaf, written – like so many of
Finzi’s works – over a period of many years, and first published in
piano-duet form. Finzi’s close friend, composer Howard Ferguson, developed
Finzi’s orchestral drafts, completing the ‘gaps’ left within the basic
architectural form. Characteristically, Finzi communicates a restrained
nostalgia and a melancholic poignancy that is at once lovely in its
tenderness and heart-rending in its pathos. The initial flute solo was
wonderfully pure – the expressiveness was equalled by the oboe’s subsequent
dolefulness – but from these clean beginnings Elder drew ever greater
warmth and soul. Despite my sympathetic leanings, I was not entirely
convinced that the work has a structural ‘direction’, but the Britten
Sinfonia injected colour – rich brass, shining cymbals – and rhythmic
athleticism, through displacement and emphatic stresses. A heavy sadness
lingered after the final dull thuds of quiet low strings, harp and bass
drum had faded.

The reprise of this programme, in Saffron Waldon, will be broadcast on

Radio 3 on 14th November


Claire Seymour

Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano), Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Britten

Mahler – (arr. Britten) What the Wild Flowers tell me; Finzi – The Fall of
the Leaf
Op.20; Mahler – R¸ckert-Lieder, Brahms – Symphony No.1 in
C minor Op.68

Barbican Hall, London; Thursday 9th November 2017.

image_description=Elisabeth Kulman, Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican Hall
product_title=Elisabeth Kulman, Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Elisabeth Kulman, with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Sir Mark Elder

Photo credit: Mark Allan