When it was announced that Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor for two of the most successful Metropolitan Opera productions in recent memory (Salome and Janáček’s From the House of the Dead), was invited to lead all three of the MET Orchestra’s performances at Carnegie Hall, the news was received with great excitement. He last conducted in Stern Auditorium in 1998.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Clive Barda

The first evening featured an all-Mahler program, joining a selection of Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs with the First Symphony. Salonen chose the first ten numbers from the 1899 collection, leaving aside the last two – Uhrlicht and Es sungen drei Engel – incorporated in the composer’s symphonies. His selection of soloists was a bit surprising. Susan Graham and Matthew Polenzani have been associated with the Metropolitan Opera for a long time and are established recitalists. With a wide repertoire, they are better known though, especially Polenzani, for their achievements in the French and Italian musical realms and less so for singing the standard German Lieder. Even more, when the Wunderhorn songs are rendered by a duet, the pairing is usually between a soprano and a baritone, not a mezzo and a tenor. But, one should not forget that Mahler created settings for vocal ranges rather than specific vocal types. He believed, as stated in a 1905 conversation that the texts are “stone blocks which everyone could shape as he would”.

Polenzani started a bit tentatively in Der Schildwache Nachtlied, his mellifluous voice transmitting the sentry’s yearning but not always coming through the orchestral thicket. He was more successful in bringing forward the inherent tension in two hypothetical dialogues: Lied des Verfolgten im Turm, a prisoner singing about freedom while his grieving lover waits outside, and the heart-wrenching Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen. Similar to the tenor, Susan Graham avoided obvious differentiating choices in impersonating both characters in the witty Verlor’ne Müh. Her charming interpretation and cultivated voice were more suited to the humorous closing song, Lob des hohen Verstandes, than to the tragic, Schubert invoking, Das irdische Leben which she treated with a little too much detachment. Despite the large forces involved, these orchestral songs should be approached with a lieder sensibility and that’s exactly what Salonen did. The motum perpetuum at the beginning of Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt was subtle, the brass in Trost im Unglück supported Polenzani’s voice without covering it, the musical colors were varied, the textures always as transparent as they could be.

Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the collection of anonymous German folk poems gathered in the early 19th century by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, is a jumble of realistic details and surreal settings, love stories and war songs, irony and tragedy. The balance between all these characteristics is difficult to maintain but, overall, this was a performance emphasizing more the lighter aspects of these texts and less so the pervasive doom and gloom.

To Mahler, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, was of a significantly greater importance than being just the source for song texts. The musical universe he shaped around these songs was the same out of which emerged his early symphonies. Even the purely orchestral First Symphony is indirectly linked to the Wunderhorn poems via quotes from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the other early song cycle with Mahler own texts, fully inspired by those in the Brentano and von Arnim collection. In the first movement, melodic material initially presented by the cellos and eventually played by the brass is reminiscent of a song entitled Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld, and material from Die zwei blauen Augen is recycled into one of the thematic motifs of the third movement. Keeping the melodies close to their roots, Salonen made very clear the innovative symbiosis between Lied and symphonic form, between private and public statements that Mahler attained in his first magnum opus. The first movement was less an invocation of a beautiful landscape’s awakening than a display of the composer’s daring harmonies and orchestration. The trio had a classical delicateness. In the third movement, he added just the right hint of tragedy to the parody, de-emphasizing the oddness of the klezmer inspired music and thus creating a powerful whole. The finale was blazingly stormy but, more important, its multiple sections were brought together into a wonderfully shaped arch.

The Finnish conductor obviously has a vision on how to interpret this music. Sometimes he drew hard on the orchestral forces to get to a point he wanted to. In other moments, he seemed to be happy with a “let them do it” method, allowing the double bass to choose his own beat for the famous Bruder Martin motif. There is a Boulez-ian frankness and lack of overemphasis in his approach. One can call it excessive froideur but, for many, the results were marvelous.