Today at the Proms - Prom 18

Continuing our daily coverage of what's on at The Proms 2019, Susan Omand has a quick look at the programme for Prom 18: Mahler & Britten ...

This Prom will be shown on BBC Four tomorrow evening.

A nice pairing tonight, pitching the exuberance of Britten with the glorious sombre tones of Mahler. As you know, I'm not a huge fan of Britten's work but this, his only, piano concerto has a lot to commend it. When it was first performed, Britten himself took the piano solo aged only 24, imbuing it with the lively sense of youth that makes it sparkle. Tonight's soloist is the not quite so youthful but just as sparkly Leif Ove Andsnes whose work is always to be admired.

But it's the work after the interval that I'm here for. I just love Mahler's emotive work and this song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde (The song of the earth), has been cited by the great and the good as one of his best. It consists of six separate but connected songs and has been written for two voices and orchestra. Originally it was to be sung by an alto and a tenor but tonight we get the mezzo-soprano (between an alto and a soprano in pitch) Claudia Mahnke and tenor Stuart Skelton adding their vocal talents.

Being Mahler, too, the subject matter is bleak, with the words taken from Chinese Tang dynasty poems about coping with life, being resigned to death and loss by seeking solace in the fading beauty surrounding them.

The music too is influenced by the east with some of the songs purely in a pentatonic scale (a scale of 5 notes - penta being five - and most easily played using just the black notes on a piano) giving it a properly stereotypical Chinese sound. Listen to the third song of the cycle HERE as a strong example of the use of pentatonic scale but my favourite song of the cycle is the second one. Here's the English translation of the poem used for that, so you can read along and sigh dramatically.

Autumn fog creeps bluishly over the lake.

Every blade of grass stands frosted.
As though an artist had jade-dust
over the fine flowers strewn.

The sweet fragrance of flower has passed;
A cold wind bows their stems low.
Soon will the wilted, golden petals
of lotus flowers upon the water float.

My heart is tired. My little lamp
expires with a crackle, minding me to sleep.
I come to you, trusted resting place.
Yes, give me rest, I have need of refreshment!

I weep often in my loneliness.
Autumn in my heart lingers too long.
Sun of love, will you no longer shine
to gently dry up my bitter tears?

Here's the full programme for this evening's Prom which you can listen to live from 19:30 on Radio 3 or on the iPlayer 

Benjamin Britten
Piano Concerto(35 mins)(revised version, 1945) Henry Wood Novelties: world premiere, 1938


Gustav Mahler
Das Lied von der Erde(64 mins)Henry Wood Novelties: UK premiere, 1914

Image - Photo © Chris Christodoulou

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