In New York, the last couple of weeks were marked by quite a surge in showcasing Gustav Mahler’s later work. At Carnegie Hall, two esteemed American ensembles – the Baltimore Symphony under the baton of Marin Alsop and the San Francisco Orchestra led by Michael Tilson-Thomas – performed, respectively, the Fifth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. At the Philharmonic, two consecutive subscription weeks included performances of Mahler Ninth under Haitink and, again, The Song of the Earth conducted by the New York Philharmonic’s music director, Alan Gilbert.

Thomas Hampson © Lukas Beck | Konzerthaus
Thomas Hampson
© Lukas Beck | Konzerthaus
The latter was prefaced by a rendering of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. This quite rare pairing allowed the public to compare and contrast two different styles that took the symphonic genre in opposite directions. At first, Mahler’s music, full of premonitions of the atonal sound structures of the Second Viennese School, seems to be closer to what we perceive as being “modern”. But with its subtle shifts in tempi, frequent ascending and descending scales, avoidance of extremes and its somehow aimless wandering, the last published symphony of Jean Sibelius can definitely claim its kinship with later explorations of classical music’s boundaries. Gilbert let the fragmentary style of this brief, single movement opus come through, helping the audience sense the stream of musical waves. He perfectly blended string and brass sonorities, emphasizing turns in the musical road when needed.

Das Lied von der Erde, setting to music a collection of Chinese poems translated into German, is as far from the four sections classical symphony as Sibelius' Seventh. Always superstitious, Mahler, trying to circumvent the “curse” of composers not being able to survive their Ninth Symphony, didn't assign a number to what was, for him, a typical symphonic output. This arguably most personal of his compositions is without doubt a true embodiment of the “definition” he gave Sibelius during their encounter in 1907: “a symphony must be like the world; it must embrace everything”.

Gilbert guided the listener well, accompanying Mahler in his voyage from alternating exuberance and lyricism to comprehension and acceptance. Under his baton, the orchestra clearly illustrated Mahler’s ability to find, like never before, a balance between the simplicity and intimate character of song and the complexities of handling a fully expanded orchestral apparatus. Appropriately, the last part, “Der Abschied” (The Farewell) with its several new beginnings, was more about regret and love for live than despair. Principal oboe Liang Wang was here impeccable in his every solo appearance. This Philharmonic performance was not as exhilarating as possible but it was definitely a very well crafted one.

Any rendition of this music definitely needs a Heldentenor to cut through the substantial orchestral texture of the “Drinking Song of Earthly Sorrow”. Stefan Vinke has the proper vocal instrument but he lacked the needed flexibility that the score requires. Baritone Thomas Hampson has been a fabulous Mahler interpreter for many years. Now his voice is inconsistent at the higher end but he still phrases expressively and fully inhabits the German text. The repeated pianissimo words at the very end – “Ewig… Ewig” (Forever”… Forever) – were heart-wrenching. 

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