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Reflections in Fluted Glass

New York
Bard College
08/10/2002 -  
Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde; Symphony # 2
Jane Jennings (soprano)
Nancy Maultsby and Susan Platts (mezzos)
John Horton Murray (tenor)
New York Virtuoso Singers
American Symphony Orchestra
Harold Rosenbaum (chorus master)
Leon Botstein (conductor)

“…The earth and its sad passions are forgotten
…We are on the threshold of the infinite.”

Berlioz on The Magic Flute

Not surprisingly, Mahler was a superstitious man. He was petrified of the myth which reigned in his day that great composers die after completing their ninth symphonies. Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner had all expired under these circumstances (Bruckner dying after completing the first three movements only) and, since Mahler knew the man personally, he was probably also aware that Dvorak had completed nine symphonies before his death as well (the first four were not generally known until much later). Thus when he completed his next symphony after the 8th, he declined to label it #9, choosing instead to capitalize on its song-filled structure to call it Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). Attempting to mitigate some of the darkness of the Sixth Symphony, Mahler eliminated one of the three hammerblows of Fate which he had inflicted upon his hero persona. But in his own life, he was struck mercilessly three times during a brief period. First he lost his position at the Vienna Opera. Then his beloved daughter died. And finally he was diagnosed immediately thereafter with a fatal form of heart disease. Reeling from these cruel shocks, he retreated into a volume of poetry accumulated by Hans Bethge and called The Chinese Flute. The volume was very popular in Vienna and featured the poetry of the ancient Li-Tai-Po. One of the greatest Mahler conductors of the 1920's, Anton Webern, also set Li's poetry to music and the Swedish composer Sigurd von Koch's song cycle The Wild Swans of 1918 is based on the same Bethge volume. When Mahler began to search for a new subject for a symphony, these verses came to mind and their thoughts and premonitions of death were ideally suited to the master's final song cycle.

The six-movement structure recalls the Third Symphony as does the bursting forth of the horns at the beginning of the first song. Mahler's familiarity with Verdi's Otello is apparent in these attention grabbing first measures as the tenor launches into The Drinking Song of the Misery of the World with its hallucinations of graveyards and spectral creatures. The unique harmonies of the pentachord and the plaintive sonority of the cor anglais punctuate the misery of Loneliness in Autumn, sung either by a contralto or baritone. Here life is just a memory (The sweet scent of the flowers has dispersed…) and death is seen as a welcome rest (It is time to sleep). A similar mood is later created by Richard Strauss in his Four Last Songs, based on the Orientalism of poet Hermann Hesse.

Life’s parallel existence as memory is explored in the next Song of Youth. Here an entire universe is charmingly created in the reflection of a gathering at a pavilion in the middle of a lake. The mirror dwellers talk and laugh and some are even writing poetry. The two sets of friends, separated by the space between the world of the physical and that of the reflection, are reminiscent of the past and the present treated as characters in the Rueckert lied about the lime twig, itself written in imitation of East Asian poetry. Their independent existence helps to distance the personae of these songs from the temporal reality of life and enables them to shed the skin of mortality. Bruno Walter, who conducted its posthumous premiere, points out that in Das Lied, Mahler finally abandons the character of the hero who has existed in all of his previous symphonies. The I gives way to the experience of life itself. Structurally, the song is a subtle juxtaposition of slightly askew counterposes, the delicate instrumentation led by the flute lagging just a beat behind the tenor at the outset and eventually outpacing him by a similar interval of time at the conclusion. Which is reality and which reflection? Ford Madox Ford, in The March of Literature, writing about detachment in this particular genre of Chinese poetry, states that:

…even the hardships and the horrors you
will seem to see through a veil of translucent
and shimmering glass, since almost always the
salient points of the narrative will be in the past.

The fourth Song of Beauty longs to stay in the world of the sensual, but the fifth, The Drunkard in Spring rejects that same world of beauty for the pleasures of intoxication (an ironic twist on Rueckert's Zen garden). Parenthetically, Mahler, who reorchestrated the symphonies of Schumann and retouched the great works of Beethoven, has no trouble changing the lines of Li-Po to suit his own dramatic needs.

Musically, Das Lied is really in two sections. The first five songs form a suite while the final movement, more than twice as long as any of the others, fills the role of the great Adagio from the third as a prolonged goodbye. In fact the song is called Der Abschied (The Farewell) and totally destroys the personality of the hero in favor of the existence around him (or her in the contralto version). The ending of the song (and the piece) sings that nature will go on long after the singer has departed. The final word Ewig (forever) is repeated many times, each more quietly as it drifts into the void.

When Walter introduced this magnificence to the world, he coupled it with a performance of the ”Resurrection” Symphony, thus inspiring Leon Botstein to devote the first Saturday night of this summer’s Bard festival to a recreation of that glorious premiere. At the time of Walter’s concert, only this Symphony # 2 was guaranteed to be well received by the public, Mahler himself having trotted it out more than once as an antidote for hostile reactions to his other orchestral essays (it was one of only two that he conducted during his three years at Carnegie Hall). Here the flute also plays a major role, albeit a symbolic one. In the finale, Mahler writes that it represents the Bird of Death, but one could also make a case for a more Jungian representation of the Egyptian ka, the winged soul ascending into heaven (cf. movement two of Brahms’ Symphony # 1), particularly when one considers the evolution of the solo instrument’s voice from first hesitant flutterings in the opening movement to chrysalis-shattering emergence in the last.

One noticeable improvement in this year’s festival is the presence of the American Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble that Mr. Botstein has elevated several levels of performance during his remarkable tenure. Replacing the ad hoc “Bard Festival Orchestra” of previous summers, this fine group presented a stunning rendition of Das Lied, powerful and lyrical by turns. Nancy Maultsby is a major talent who carried the day brilliantly, her rich and deep mezzo fitting the sonority envisioned by the composer as well as could be realized in an acoustically challenged setting. Tenor John Horton Murray was considerably less satisfying, having a strong tendency towards the flat side, but putting a great deal of blood, sweat and tears into his dramatic interpretation. The real star of the performance, however, was the orchestra, triumphant and growling, serene and bestial, delicate and raucous. Principal flautist Randal Bowman was simply superb. Outdoor music is often a risky business, but this early evening the ambient noise was gently unintrusive. We were all blessed with a magical ending; at the very moment when the last “ewig” had faded into frozen quietude, there emerged from somewhere in the back the slight but eloquent cry of a baby. Mahler couldn’t have scripted it any better.

After a generous dinner break (Walter’s original audience was granted no such luxury), the ASO launched into a reading of the ”Resurrection” that was more solid in interpretation than it was in intonation. The brass seemed tired and drained almost from the start (perhaps the break was not such a good idea after all) and the offstage band was consistently irregular. However, there were wonderful touches in this performance. Botstein actually made the orchestral rendering of Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt very funny, a sentiment usually only brought out in the vocal version. Susan Platts, substituting on short notice for the scheduled mezzo, was especially impressive in the Urlicht and here the offstage players were spot on and genuinely moving in echo mode (the advantage of open air is that one can achieve a farther away sound without artificially soft dynamics). Some general muffs and flubs were swept away by the splendidly moving finale, punctuated by a fine choral effort.

Perhaps because of the length of the evening’s program, the festival eschewed its normal afternoon chamber concert in favor of a lecture featuring musical examples both live and recorded. The thesis of the talk was the logical progression of the Viennese vocal tradition through Mahler, but much of the fine vocalism of baritone Stephen Salters, whose studied individual note dynamics were very impressive in creating vocal characterizations, was eclipsed by a rather dry and disorganized local professor, who reminded me of why I left school in the first place (for some reason, Bard does not take advantage of the services of lecturer extraordinaire Richard Wilson, whom I spotted in the audience this day). Even the first of two stunning performances by Ms. Platts couldn’t totally free us from the icy grip of the academics. Perhaps it would have been more significantly educational if they had simply presented the music in a logical order and allowed us all to draw our own conclusions.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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