From the earliest performances of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at Severance Hall in 1940, there have been many distinguished soloists, including Set Svanholm, Maureen Forrester, Janet Baker and Richard Lewis. This weekend tenor Paul Groves and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung took their places in that line, with conductor Donald Runnicles replacing an ailing Christoph von Dohnányí. The performance was sensuously beautiful, but at times the virtuosity of the orchestra prevailed over the singers.

Michelle DeYoung © Kristin Hoebermann
Michelle DeYoung
© Kristin Hoebermann

The six movements of Mahler’s 1908 symphonic song cycle, based on idiosyncratic German translations of classic Chinese poems, are mostly melancholy, with farewell, loss and death being the themes. The last movement, almost a half hour in length and as long as the other movements combined, is a test of orchestral and vocal concentration, through its many moods and long closing passage.

In recent years Paul Groves, who began his career as a lyric tenor, has taken on heavier roles by Berlioz, Berg and Wagner. His voice was taxed to its limits at times in Das Lied von der Erde, especially in the first movement, with its requirement to ride heroically over the massed orchestral sound. Much of the time he vanished into the texture of the orchestra, which Donald Runnicles did not rein in. Groves seemed much more comfortable in the lyrical third movement – one of the few happy moments of the cycle – with its musical chinoiserie. In the fifth, the song of a bird is drowned out by a man drinking himself to death. The orchestration is again full; Paul Groves found the cynical tone of the song’s text.

Michelle DeYoung is a regular visitor to The Cleveland Orchestra, and she is a distinguished Mahler performer. In this performance she invested each phrase with voluptuous sound and sensitive interpretation. The richness of her sound often, however, played against the comprehension of the texts. The alto’s songs don’t have the variety in mood as do those of the tenor; they are subdued. The final movement was especially moving, with DeYoung’s ability to maintain the long farewell of the poet’s journey to “everywhere and forever”. 

The stars of this performance were Runnicles and The Cleveland Orchestra, with a breadth of sound, but with details highlighted throughout. Donald Runnicles captured both the heroism and world-weary moods of Mahler’s score. The score is rich with opportunities for the various sections to show their best, here especially the horns and clarinets. Various section principals, notably Joshua Smith, flute, Frank Rosenwein, oboe, and Mark Kosower, cello, were integral to the success of the last movement.

The concert opened with a delicately restrained performance of Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony no. 8, in B minor, D.759. From the low, mysterious introduction of the first movement to the calm ending of the second movement, this reading was Mozartian in its elegance and balance. Even the more dramatic moments were never bombastic moment; all was grace and beauty, worthy of one of music’s supreme melodists.