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May 8, 2011

Baltimore Symphony continues Mahler-centric season with 'Das Lied'

For Gustav Mahler, even before he learned of his own life-threatening heart condition when he was in his 40s, death was always a lurking presence. Funeral marches haunt his earliest symphonies.

But the composer saw in the earth's continual renewal a way of confronting mortality. For Mahler, there was something in the distance, in the deepest blue of the sky, that suggested a destination point -- and another beginning.

In "Das Lied von der Erde," a collection of ancient Chinese poems about the transitory nature of life, Mahler opened up a window into his deepest thinking. Along with Mahler’s profoundly moving Symphony No. 9, the cycle of six songs that makes up “Das Lied” serves as a kind of self-eulogy for the composer. If this were the only work we had by this extraordinary man, it would be enough to earn him a place among the greatest of creative artists.

During his lifetime, only a fraction of the music world acknowledged him as a major composer. It was his conducting talent that earned him international fame, not his epic symphonies. Today, Mahler, who famously said “my time will come,” is as much a standard part of the orchestral repertoire as Beethoven, Brahms or Tchaikovsky.

Mahler’s legacy has been receiving extra attention during the 2010-11 season, which coincides with the anniversaries of his birth in Bohemia 150 years ago, and of his death 100 years ago in Vienna -- on May 18, 1911.

For its part, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has made a Mahler a major theme of its programming. The latest example, which has one more presentation Sunday afternoon, strikes both biographical and elegiac themes.

The major item is the hour-plus “Das Lied von der Erde." BSO music director Marin Alsop has paired it with what, at first glance, may seem an unlikely companion for the concert’s first half ....

-- Mendelssohn’s sun-dappled Symphony No.4, known as the “Italian.” But that work’s evocation of someone rapturously drinking in beauty finds a haunting counterpart in the alternately exuberant, sardonic and mystical views of nature in the songs of “Das Lied.”

There’s another point to be made from the presence of the “Italian” Symphony here; it was one of the pieces on the last concert Mahler ever conducted (with the New York Philharmonic). Hearing it on the same program with Mahler’s symphony about taking leave of earthly life provides a bittersweet tinge.

On Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall, Alsop drew from the BSO a polished, energetic account of the Mendelssohn symphony, with particularly colorful contributions from the woodwinds (the flutes could have used more presence, though).

Alsop offered an often beautifully detailed account of “Das Lied.” If the performance sounded somewhat detached at times, there still was considerable expressive warmth. The gentle phrasing of the closing measures of “Von der Schonheit” was but one example.

The orchestra met the score’s daunting challenges firmly. Solo contributions by oboist Katherine Needleman and cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski proved quite eloquent.

“Das Lied” requires two singers of unusual technical and interpretive skill. The BSO’s guest artists did not come through entirely unscathed on Friday.

Simon O’Neill, like many a tenor in this music, found most of the high notes a struggle (it sounded like he bailed on the last one in “Der Trunkene im Fruhling”). Still, his phrasing often had an effective vibrancy.

Mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe needed more tonal heft in places; she was easily overwhelmed when the orchestra let loose. (Meyerhoff's acoustics aren't terribly helpful to voices, I know.) But she brought a disarming tenderness to “Der Einsame im Herbst” and she tapped into the sublime emotional depth of the hushed, time-suspending lines that close “Der Abschied,” Mahler’s transfixing glimpse of an eternally blooming spring.

A few more words about Friday's experience. "Das Lied" is obviously still a struggle for some folks; there were deserters during the performance. Worse were the two folks sitting across the aisle from me who, at various points, strolled out of the hall and back in (they were way too young to have incontinence troubles.) Worse still were the coughers, who left almost no pianissimo undisturbed. Geesh.

Also, as I've said before, the BSO really should try to get a supertitle system in place for vocal/orchestral repertoire. Maybe a generous soul would underwrite it. I'm convinced that audiences would find it easier and more rewarding to see the words projected in sync with the performance, rather than try to read handout texts. It might even hold their attention so strongly that they'll forget to cough.

PHOTO OF THEODORA HANSLOWE (by Shana Schnur) COURTESY OF BARRETT VANTAGE ARTISTS; PHOTO OF SIMON O'NEILL (by Lisa Kohler) COURTESY OF SIMONONEILL.COM

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:51 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes
        

Comments

Its a shame that the article in "The Sun" was edited so that the last part does not get published. Your comments are "DEAD ON". I think some folks rehearse coughing! And, someone should have been at the door to prevent the wonderers from going in and out!

Jascha Horenstein once said that the sad thing about dying was that he would never be able to hear Das Lied again. So I try to hear it whenever I can. I was at the Sunday performance. I thought the tenor inadequate to the task, which is beyond all but the greatest heldentenor, but unpleasantly shrill as well. The mezzo was decent, however, and not overwhelmed by the orchestra from my perspective in the cheap seats. The first desk oboist was nothing short of superb, as was her counterpart on flute. I found Alsop's phrasing mannered at times, a la Bernstein, as usual, but still she delivered a sometimes moving performance of one of the greatest works of Western art of the 20th Century, and really, of all time. However, she failed to impress at all in the hushed ending, which did not give a glimmer of the impression of being suspended in time while fading into eternity that it should have. As to your comments on the audience; what can you expect? I am well into retirement, and I saw few in the audience younger than myself; still there were too many empty seats to count. And the buses from the old folks' homes lined the curb as I left. Let's face it: art music is dying and may not exist as a living art form in another 50 years when we are all gone. But for the few living who will still have the sensibility to recognize its truth and the attention span to experience it, Mahler's sublime creation will go on... ewig ... ewig... ewig.

I was at the Friday performance and agree with the review. I found this to be the best Mahler Alsop has presented so far - I missed her 5th and 7th. The orchestra played beautifully throughout. I felt "Der Einsame in Herbst" was the strongest, followed by Der Abschied. After the concert, Alsop did tell those who staid for the discussion that the tenor had kidney stones and had been in the hospital all day - I imagine that could affect him a bit. This seems like a difficult piece for singers to match the orchestra and I wonder, given that we hear it live so seldom, if our ears don't expect too much based on the fact that our familiarity is largely with recordings.
Finally, a question - which recording of Das Lied do you enjoy the most. I've been listening to a live recording from 1939 (Concertgebouw with Karl Schuricht, Kerstin Thorborg, and Carl Martin Ohmann). It's a beautiful recording, but I'd like to hear one with more modern technology behind it.

Thanks for the comments. I'm especially interested in the report on the tenor. I had a suspicion he was unwell, especially when he took his last A an octave lower, but I was thinking cold, not something much more serious. Perhaps he's one of the artists who doesn't believe in having announcements made before a performance, asking for the audience's indulgence. I've always believed that honesty really is the best policy in cases like this.
As for more modern recordings, I don't think you can wrong with Bernstein. I love his tenor/baritone version with King, Fischer-Dieskau, Vienna Phil, but I find one with Kollo, Ludwig and Israel Phil very satisfying, too. Some folks object to the Klemperer recording with Wunderlich and Ludwig, but I think it's awfully powerful.

I thought Das Abschied was superbly rendered on Friday. Alsop took it very slowly, yet it was, to my mind, perfectly articulated and integrated. And Ms. Hanslowe sang her part more than adequately. I speak as a devotee of the Ferrier/Patzak/Walter recording: a high standard, I think. I would think twice about hearing Das Lied live after this for fear of disappointment.

A high standard, indeed. Thanks for the comments. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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