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