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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Concert Review: A Song of Eternity

Sir Simon Rattle leads Das Lied von der Erde.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Earth mover: Stuart Skelton (left) sings as Sir Simon Rattle conducts Das Lied von der Erde. 
Photo by Kevin Yatarola © 2018 the photographer.
The honeymoon weekend in New York continued Sunday afternoon for Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. This was the second installment of Mahler Transcending, a three-day exploration of that composer's last three symphonies. Sunday's matinee was dedicated to the first of these works: Das Lied von der Erde. This piece, written in the summers of 1908 and 1909, is both symphony and song cycle. His penultimate completed work, he did not live to hear it performed.

Mahler planned Das Lied (the title means "The Song of the Earth") as his Ninth Symphony. However, the composer, superstitious about the fact that no composer after Beethoven had written more than nine symphonies,chose  to re-title the work. (He would live to complete his Ninth, but died before finishing the Tenth.) It is a six-movement setting of seven Chinese poems, translated into German and found by Mahler in the book The Chinese Flute.

The work is written for two singers: a heroic tenor and either a mezzo or a baritone, and a slightly smaller orchestra than the usual Mahlerian army. The tenor sings first. Here, Wagnerian tenor Stuart Skelton poured himself liberally into The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow, accompanied by the lean and muscular orchestration. This is Mahler writing with a more restrained pen, supporting the voices instead of making the singers fight the tide. This movement veers int extreme dissonance at times, and Mr. Skelton's burly voice had the power to navigate the rigors and wide intervals of this movement.

The Drunkard in Spring is the first indication of a new style that will be heard throughout Mahler's late years. A tremolo in the strings is answered by little bird-songs in the woodwinds. Yes that sounds like the beginning of the First Symphony but the tinta is darker here, laden with ominous portent like a storm cloud about to break. Baritone Christian Gerhaher sounded tentative here, like he was having trouble regulating his volume. He sang with a fairly high pitch against the slow orchestra, making him sound more like a smallish tenor.

It was up to Mr. Skelton to inject some energy into the short, charming "Of Youth", which functions, alongside the following two short movements as a  three-part scherzo. Mr. Gerhaher took "Of Beauty", and Mr. Skelton concluded the tripartite structure with "The Drunkard in Spring", the most ebullient song of this cycle. Here, he pushed his big tenor to the limit, exulting over the heavy orchestration and conquering the sometimes difficult vocal writing with powerful, effortful singing.

Der Abscheid ("The Farewell") is the most unique movement among Mahler symphonies, a slowly unfolding Adagio that moves at a methodical, unhurried pace over thirty minutes. The mood of its opening pages is ominous, with slow, heavy bass chords that evoke a funeral cort├ęge, leading the way for spooky pentatonic melodies in the double reeds. The mood is not one of fear but the measured tread of resignation. The text was built from two different poems, and part of the trick of performing this movement is transitioning smoothly between the two presented viewpoints.

It was here that Mr. Gerhaher seemed to find his courage. He fitted the slow agony of the opening lines to his expressive voice, unfolding the story of unfulfilled love and the agony of departure. The orchestra took center stage in the middle of the movement, bending and surging under Sir Simon's direction. It climaxed in a terrifying sound, slow, rolled hits on the gong that bring dread and immediacy to the listener. The last pages, with harp and flute lending color and the hope of new bloom and resolution, were added by Mahler himself. Mr. Gergager sang "Ewig, ewig," an evocation of eternity as the work faded to a final, powerful silence.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.