For his second consecutive week of subscription concerts with the New York Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel partially rekindled an experiment he performed in 2017 when – at the helm of his beloved Los Angeles Philharmonic – he juxtaposed Schubert's symphonies with Mahler's works for voice and orchestra. Linking two oeuvres for which song has constantly been a central element, a wondrous tool used to probe into the deepest corners of the human psyche, makes a lot of sense. Nevertheless, listening to Schubert’s Symphony no. 4, there is little indication that the 19-years-old composer had already completed such phenomenal Lieder as Gretchen am Spinnrade, Erlkönig or Der König in Thule. As indebted as the opus is to Mozart’s orchestral music, Schubert’s themes are barely marked by any outstanding vocal character as Mozart’s proverbially are.

Andrew Staples, Michelle DeYoung and Gustavo Dudamel with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

From the slow, gloomy introduction to the rather uninspired finale, Dudamel – benefiting from the presence of the best group of instrumentalists that the New York Philharmonic has to offer – kept a remarkable balance between anguish and ebullience, with all the arching melodies carefully contoured. He strove to draw attention to several surprising harmonic wanderings – foretelling things to come in the composer’s output – such as the one several bars before the end of the Andante. As later in Mahler, the chemistry between Dudamel and the orchestra was readily apparent, even if, before the current series, their previous collaboration was a long 11 years ago.

Heldentenor Simon O’Neill was scheduled to take up the male soloist role in Das Lied von der Erde, but he fell ill and was replaced at the last moment by Andrew Staples who has just finished his stint as Andres in Metropolitan’s Opera Wozzeck. After all, this music must have sounded familiar to someone who has spent the last couple of weeks immersed in Alban Berg’s soundscape! Staples plunged valiantly into the first stanza of The Drinking Song of Earthly Sorrow, his voice easily soaring above the orchestral tapestry with its trumpet (a powerful, yet subtle Chris Martin) and horns. He was less successful though in switching to the anguish of the three-times repeated refrain “Dunkel is das Leben, ist der der Tod!” Not at any point did Staples give the impression that he was summoned for the role on such a short notice. His Of Youth had the same suave, porcelain-like transparency as the introductory triangle sound. In The Drunkard in Spring, he easily switched gears from the powerful insouciance of a character ready to drink the whole day – “den ganzen lieben Tag” – to melancholy, when evoking – in dialogue with concertmaster Frank Huang and the piccolo – a twittering bird announcing the arrival of Spring.

Michelle DeYoung has been a trusted interpreter of Mahler’s music for many years. Her instrument might sound a little tired at the extremities of her vocal range, but her phrasing, her grasp of the German words’ meaning and her stage presence remain remarkable. However, she performed Der Einsame im Herbst with an emotional restraint that seemed inappropriate at times, especially compared to the warmth with which Acting Principal Oboe Sherry Silar imbued every sound in her long solo lines. The mezzo had no problems navigating through the difficult middle section of Von der Schönheit, her voice merging wonderfully with the ensemble when describing the galloping horses. Almost all signs of froideur in DeYoung’s approach dissipated in Abschied, the last song. Her repeated, slowly-dying-away “Ewig” (forever) was extremely poignant.

It goes without saying that Dudamel was an exceptionally sensitive accompanist during the entire rendition of Das Lied. At the same time, he had no qualms letting individual instrumentalists’ contributions bask in the limelight. He shaped every song with an unfailing sense for the right phrasing, bringing out colorful details irrespective of the heaviness or lightness of textures.

Considering the overall results, the New York Philharmonic should invite him to guest conduct as often as possible.