The second of the three MET Orchestra performances conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen in Carnegie Hall proved that the ensemble still performs at a very high level during this interregnum period, when James Levine assumed the position of music director emeritus, and when Yannick Nézet-Séguin is still years away from spending enough time with the orchestra. There were some hard-to-accept hesitations in the brass section during Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde but the individual woodwind interventions were spotless and the strings played gloriously.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Anne Ryan
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Anne Ryan

Salonen prefaced Mahler’s opus with Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, “Rhenish”, highlighting some interesting links between the two. Gustav Mahler, like many of his contemporaries, believed that Schumann’s symphonic works are not genuinely orchestral in their essence and just sound like overblown piano compositions. Hence, he took upon himself the task of retouching the scores, using his revisions in performances he conducted. He adjusted the dynamic markings and updated the woodwind and brass parts, the result being musical landscapes transfigured by Mahlerian sonorities. It would have been interesting to listen to Schumann’s Third Symphony as edited by Mahler, but Salonen stuck to the original score, making sure to emphasize those moments when listeners are reminded of Schumann’s talent as a songwriter. The third movement’s main theme, with winds and horns playing a sweet and lyrical melody, accompanied by the strings, is a good example of the interpolation between lied and classical forms that represents the most significant connection between the respective oeuvres of Schumann and Mahler.

The Finnish maestro conducted, as expected, a straightforward rendition of this musical tribute to the Rhineland, keeping a perfect balance between a conservative approach to form and abundant melodic and rhythmic innovations. The Scherzo was an example of restraint. In the fourth movement, the music, with its splendidly simple brass chorale, moved majestically, without any hint of bombastic.

It’s interesting to notice the overall beaming, exuberant nature of this symphony. There is no cloud on the horizon, no premonition of the soon-to-come failed suicide attempt, followed by confinement to an asylum for the insane and death at only 46. On the other side, the preoccupation with fate and death has been a constant of Mahler’s oeuvre from the very beginning. 1907 was for him a true annus horribilis: forced resignation from his position at the Vienna Opera, the death of his elder daughter, the first signs of an incurable heart condition. Under these circumstances, he began composing, based on a free German translation of ancient Chinese poems dealing with life’s duality and ambivalence, Das Lied von der Erde, his finest symbiosis between lied and symphony.

The key for a successful rendition of The Song of the Earth is treating the orchestra as a third voice imparting meaning, besides the soloists singing their texts. Compared to Mahler’s prior opuses, the large orchestra is treated here as a chamber ensemble with textures pared down and long solo passages sustaining the vocalists. Salonen brought sparkling clarity and grace to all these individual interventions.

Reading too much into the score, some interpreters imbue the music with a despair that was absent from the composer’s intentions. The six movements are in fact exploring different possible moods at the end of life, from cynical drunkenness to calm acceptance of one’s death being just an element of nature’s perpetual cycle of renewal.

In the first song, “Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde”, a celebration of wine’s ability to temporarily dispel fear, tenor Stuart Skleton handled the more vigorous passages better than the lyrical ones. His top notes where thrilling and his attempt to repeat each time with a different weight the refrain Dunkel is das Leben, is der Tod was remarkable. Later, Skelton displayed a hearty commitment and stamina in the lighter “Der Trunkene im Frühling”. In the slow “Der Einsame im Herbst”, with its superb opening of oboe and strings, mezzo Karen Cargill stressed the bitter loneliness the poem describes, impressively singing true pianissimos. Even if her timbre was not entirely consistent through the demanding range required, and her voice sounded forced at times, particularly at the loud end of the spectrum, her phrasing was admirable in describing the young girls gathered by the riverbank in “Von der Schönheit”. The sense of expectation she summoned during the otherworldly final “Der Abschied” was marvelous. Salonen focused in this last movement on the orchestral interlude, another of Mahler’s funeral marches where tonalism is pushed to its limits. It seems like the old sonorities must wither and die, the new ones ready to emerge.