Philadelphia Orchestra in New York

Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Das Lied von der Erde

Paul Groves (tenor) & Thomas Hampson (baritone)

The Philadelphia Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 21 April, 2006
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

The Philadelphia Orchestra, led by its Music Director, Christoph Eschenbach, made its final Carnegie Hall appearance of the season on Friday. This performance of “Das Lied von der Erde“ is part of a five-season-long Mahler cycle, the first in the orchestra’s history.

Eschenbach gave Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony a powerful reading from the very first note, which sounded with explosive force. The sonic explosions continued, phrase after phrase, with Eschenbach mimicking them visually by repeatedly bringing both hands upward and then outward. This interpretation effectively added to Beethoven’s score many sforzandos and fortissimos – especially for the timpani – and emphasised the separateness of successive phrases, interposing or implying pauses where there were none in the score. Eschenbach thus played down the score’s rustic charm, instead treating it as of comparable weight to its neighbouring symphonies. However, uniquely among Beethoven’s symphonies, the Eighth lacks a slow movement, thus having neither the lush lyricism of the Ninth’s Adagio molto e cantabile or the monumental power of the Allegretto of the Seventh.

The high energy of the first movement continued into the second movement’s Allegretto scherzando, with its metronomic woodwind figure propelling the music relentlessly forward. In the third movement, Tempo di Menuetto, the orchestra executed Beethoven’s many sforzandos with the same explosiveness that characterised the first movement. No delicate, courtly dance this! The horn and clarinet solos in the trio section were particularly notable, but the wind-playing was excellent throughout. The finale proceeded with blazing speed, with the string sections deftly bouncing the principal theme back and forth and joining in intricate counterpoint. In the extended coda, Eschenbach ended with the same orchestral power that had started the work.

Two thematic elements dominate “Das Lied von der Erde“: a calm farewell to life, and allusions to Chinese poetry and music. Mahler’s fixation on death is understandable, as this was his first major composition after the death, at age 4, of his elder daughter and the diagnosis of the serious heart ailment that ultimately shortened his own life. The song text is ostensibly a German translation of eighth-century Chinese poetry, but its connection to the original poems is very tenuous: a French translation from the Chinese was in turn translated into German and then paraphrased by Hans Bethge and published as “Die chinesische Flöte” (The Chinese Flute) in 1907. Mahler then selected and further adapted seven of the poems. The highly symphonic score includes quasi-Chinese elements such as pentatonic and whole-note scales, but these are no more authentically Chinese than is the text.

“Das Lied von der Erde” blends the two principal genres of Mahler’s compositional output – symphony and song. A symphony with vocal elements? Conventional wisdom leans toward the latter point of view, and Eschenbach seemed to be solidly in that camp in the opening movement, “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” (The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery), with the orchestra projecting the dazzling tonal colours of Mahler’s score at high volume, frequently overwhelming tenor Paul Groves’s vocal line in the process.

This put Groves in elite company, joining a long line of tenors, who have been vanquished by the powerful orchestral forces Mahler arrayed against them. Das Lied really requires a Heldentenor – which Groves is not – and even a Heldentenor can be overwhelmed in this piece, whether in the concert hall or the recording studio. Nevertheless, Groves sang well, affectingly intoning the first movement’s thematic refrain “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” (Life is dark; death is dark) and painting vocal pictures of the carefree pleasures of youth and the drunkard’s indifference to the coming of spring.

In the alternating movements, scored for a contralto, and sometimes performed by a baritone (Mahler gives the option), Thomas Hampson gave an exquisite and emotionally insightful performance, demonstrating vocal power to spare by modulating his volume as necessary to soar over the orchestral accompaniment without ever sacrificing the beauty of his vocal tone. He gave a warm account of frolicking youths and maidens in “Von der Schönheit” (Of Beauty), but was most affecting in the final movement, “Der Abschied” (Farewell), which accounts for around half of the work’s duration and lies at its thematic core. His harp-accompanied repetitions of “ewig” (forever) grew ever more touching as the work came to its serene conclusion.

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