Tevót [US premiere]
Das Lied von der Erde
Ben Heppner (tenor) & Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone)
Sir Simon Rattle
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 14 November, 2007
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Tevót seems to follow a general plan of ‘start with a soft section, build up to a climax, repeat’. The beginning features high harmonics in the strings, which either were written in quarter-tones or simply sounded out of tune. Other instruments gradually join in until critical mass is reached with a cacophonous first climax. What follows is perhaps the most interesting section of the composition, an interplay between woodwinds and percussion, but the counterpoint quickly becomes so dense that again it loses all definition. This pattern of blurring textures, having almost everyone play almost all of the time, and building up to various climaxes continues throughout. Finally an extended semi-contrapuntal section is reached, based on a simplistic motif of alternating melodic seconds which gradually descend the scale, piling up – of course – to reach a final outburst.
How infinitely more interesting and ‘modern’ Mahler’s orchestration sounded in comparison, and how abundantly richer in musical ideas! Superstitiously trying to avoid writing a Ninth Symphony, Mahler called this symphonic work “Das Lied von der Erde”, scored for large orchestra and “tenor and alto (or baritone) voice”. Bruno Walter, who conducted its premiere in November of 1911, after Mahler’s death, chose an alto for the occasion, Sarah Charles Cahier (William Miller was the tenor). He subsequently performed it with a baritone as well, but only once, and we have become used to hearing a woman’s voice in the even-numbered movements. There are notable exceptions, of course. Leonard Bernstein recorded the work with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Christoph Eschenbach recently performed it with Thomas Hampson in Carnegie Hall in April of 2006.
Simon Rattle went one step further in unusual casting by engaging not a lyric baritone, but a bass-baritone, Thomas Quasthoff. Any trepidation one might have had regarding the high register of the part was quickly laid to rest, as Quasthoff exhibited a seamless transition to a beautiful and strong head-voice in those passages. Singing with the artistry we have come to expect of him, Quasthoff made a very strong case for the all-male version. His movements are the more melancholy ones, and he hauntingly characterized the lonely man of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’, and created the perfect atmosphere for the scene of young maidens at the river in ‘Von der Schönheit’ (Of Beauty). ‘Der Abschied’ (The Farewell), the long final movement, was the most gripping of all, evoking all the emotion of two friends’ parting and the eternal renewal of life and nature. Quasthoff’s last statements of “ewig” (forever), growing ever more faint and ephemeral, practically dissolved into the orchestral texture.
Finding the right singer for the tenor part is a challenge as well, as both power and lyricism are called for. The two ‘drinking songs’, the first and fifth movements, demand a voice which is comfortable with the high tessitura and powerful enough to be heard over dense orchestral textures. ‘Von der Jugend’, on the other hand, with its chinoiserie and light textures, requires delicacy and finesse. Ben Heppner was the ideal choice, adept at and comfortable with both vocal styles. Moreover, he brought delightful characterization to every movement, with exemplary German diction.
Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon deserve their share of credit for making this an outstanding event. While it is almost taken for granted that the orchestra will play flawlessly, beautifully, one could also sense the engagement everyone brought to the music; the first oboe (Jonathan Kelly?) and first flute (Emmanuel Pahud) particularly distinguished themselves in the second and last movements, respectively. Rattle established just the right ambience for each ‘Lied’ and was most sensitively attuned to the singers.