Mahler: The Symphonies in Sequence – Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim & Boulez in New York [Symphony No.10 Adagio & Das Lied von der Erde/Barenboim]

Symphony No.10 – Adagio
Das Lied von der Erde

Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano) & Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 16 May, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

This penultimate concert of Staatskapelle Berlin’s “Mahler: The Symphonies in Sequence” paired “Das Lied von der Erde” (which Mahler called a symphony but to which he pointedly declined to assign an ordinal number) with the Adagio from the composer’s uncompleted Tenth Symphony, with Daniel Barenboim, the orchestra’s music director, conducting.

Mahler had made considerable progress in the composition of his Tenth Symphony, but had fully completed (more or less) only the opening Adagio movement before his death in 1911. Several ‘performing editions’ of the full symphony were later prepared from Mahler’s drafts and notes, with the version created by Deryck Cooke (as subsequently revised) having enjoyed particular success in concert halls, but Barenboim elected to include in the present cycle only the portion of the symphony completed by Mahler himself.

Barenboim’s reading of the Adagio came off as even more disjointed than is implicit in the score, which constantly shifts back and forth among a few thematic ideas, introducing variations of each along the way. The chill created by flute and piccolo accents above the violins alternated with warmer feelings generated by the lower strings in the main Adagio theme, but it was the icy atmosphere that dominated and persisted in the final bars. Despite much fine playing by the orchestra – most notably the violas in the opening passage and its recurrences, and the horns, which suffused the beautiful Adagio theme with a lovely glow – the movement as a whole felt aimless and uninvolving.

“Das Lied von der Erde”, with its varied melodic and rhythmic elements, faux-Chinese tonalities and wide dynamic range, seemed much better suited to Barenboim’s temperament. He favoured generally brisk tempos, attacking with abandon at the outset and in the more dynamic passages, whilst providing the vocal soloists with appropriately atmospheric calm when the mood turned gentle or introspective. The orchestra played excellently and colourfully in ensemble passages, and there were many fine solo turns, including the oboe at the beginning and ending of the second movement, ‘Der Einsame in Herbst’ (The Solitary One in Autumn), the piccolo throughout ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ (The Drunkard in Spring), and the harps in ‘Der Abschied’ (The Farewell), especially in the symphony’s concluding passages.

“Das Lied von der Erde” is structured as a song-cycle, but thematic and other elements of continuity that pervade the work justify its designation by Mahler as a symphony. It consists of six settings of Chinese poems that had been freely adapted and translated into German by Hans Bethge from a previous translation into French, and which then were further adapted by Mahler himself and scored to be sung alternately by a tenor and alto (or baritone).

Klaus Florian Vogt (replacing Burkhard Fritz) sang with a rather sweet and airy tone that is unusual among singers of the Heldentenor repertory, yet his voice was powerful and penetrating enough to project clearly above the orchestra for all but a few scattered moments in the opening movement, ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ (Drinking Song of the Misery of the Earth). Vogt made its recurring motto, “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” (Dark is life, dark is death) more despairing at each iteration. His gentle legato was especially felicitous in ‘Von der Jugend’ (Of Youth), as he described the idyllic existence of a group of silk-robed friends luxuriating in an elegant pavilion, to the accompaniment of the most Chinese-influenced orchestral passages in the work as a whole. Then, in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’, Vogt gave a merry account of the drunkard’s indifference to the coming of spring, preferring alcohol-induced oblivion to the beauties of nature.

Mahler assigned the lion’s share of the singing to the alto part, which mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung – appearing in her fourth concert in the cycle – performed with richness of tone and expressive interpretation of the varying moods of the music. In ‘Der Einsame in Herbst’, DeYoung’s resonant singing created an atmosphere as tangibly autumnal as the poem’s text, but her voice and phrasing took on a quite different character in ‘Von der Schönheit’ (Of Beauty), which has a very different setting and mood as it speaks of attractive young women and men frolicking beside a riverbank in the summer sunshine.

The final movement, ‘Der Abschied’ (The Farewell), is almost as long in duration as all that comes before it, and reflects Mahler’s fixation on death. Here DeYoung and the orchestra created a mood that contrasted sharply with both of her previous solos – an introspective farewell to life. The extended funereal orchestral interlude, introduced by the tam-tam in the middle of this movement, set the stage for the bleak conclusion, with its spare accompaniment to the vocal line. De Young’s repetitions of “ewig” (forever) brought the work to its serene, but harmonically unresolved, conclusion.

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