The pairing of Schubert and Mahler in concert programmes is a curious, if not infrequent, one given that Mahler didn’t seem to be too fond of Schubert’s works. Mahler is noted for his criticism of Schubert’s works as being repetitious and under-developed. Nevertheless, pairing Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is perhaps a sensible idea given their respective brevity and scale. Indeed, it was the sheer volume and depth of Mahler’s Das Lied that allowed mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and tenor Simon O’Neill to shine as they explored themes of life, death and meaning together with the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas’ leadership; making up for a somewhat lacklustre rendition of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony at the outset of the programme.

Sasha Cooke © Dario Acosta
Sasha Cooke
© Dario Acosta

The SFS’ rendition of the Unfinished Symphony was unfortunately underwhelming. Perhaps it was their choice of tempo which failed to give the first movement the momentum and flow it deserved; but the result left me feeling as though it didn’t quite take off. The playing itself was not at all deficient, the atmosphere undeniably set from the very start when double basses opened and were followed by the semiquavers of the violins. The second movement fared better, maintaining the Andante con moto marking while sweetly articulating the phrases throughout. In particular, the oboe and clarinet solos (by Carey Bell and Eugene Izotov respectively) were noticeably delightful.

If one was troubled by the brevity of The Unfinished, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde would certainly have made up for it. The collection of six movements (or songs), which alternate between tenor and alto leads, was written in 1908 by a Mahler who had been bereaved of his daughter a year earlier, and had himself been diagnosed with a severe heart condition. The lyrics of these songs are a melancholic German poem with which he had resonated. This poem was itself a translation of an ancient Chinese poem written in the 8th century that explores themes of melancholy, mortality, drinking to escape life, and finally resignation. In this way, Das Lied is a profoundly personal work, which Mahler himself described as “a symphony in songs”.

Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde speaks of the brevity of human life while inviting us to empty our goblets. The orchestration is dramatic, and the SFS delivered a  bright and bold rendition that was certainly effective in its conjuration of a tavern-like setting, into which tenor Simon O’Neill sang with assertion. His voice was robust, had strong projection, and could be heard clearly above the orchestra, even despite the obvious vocal demands.

After this came the quiet muted strings and beautiful wistful oboe solo of Der Einsame im Herbst, along with Sasha Cooke’s supple and rich voice. Her connection with the words was apparent and moving, and the bleakness was particularly felt in the closing question of this song: “Sun of love, will you never shine again and softly dry my bitter tears?”

The next three songs were shorter, somewhat more upbeat, and fulfilled a sort of intermezzo role. In Von der Jugend, O’Neill captured the youthful and buoyant melodies in his singing. Von der Schönheit is a song which tells of young girls gathering around a river gathering lotus flowers while observing boys galloping on horses. As the SFS canvassed the coming of the horses, Cooke’s voice and articulation impressively matched the energy of the song. Der Trunkene im Frühling is another happier song, and again O’Neill did not disappoint as he sung of the coming spring with brilliance.

The final song is a significant one lasting almost as long as the previous five combined. Der Abschied is a full-fledged discourse on resignation, yearning and hope. In this Cooke delivered this poem beautifully and powerfully, with her voice sustaining both resonance and power for the entire duration of the song; against the backdrop of yet another fantastic oboe solo.

Mahler once asked his friend Bruno Walter regarding Das Lied “Is it at all bearable? After hearing this, won’t people want to do away with themselves?” Though the work is indeed a heavy one, I think that, if anything, it sent us away into the night being enriched by such an intimate insight into Mahler’s struggles.