Leonard Bernstein famously described Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde as his “greatest symphony,” written at a harrowing time in the composer’s life. When published, the score designated the work as “Eine Symphonie für eine Tenor- und eine Alt- (oder Bariton-) Stimme und Orchester: it's a six-part song cycle for two voices and orchestra in which a tenor alternates with an alto (or a baritone). The work is in effect a “song symphony”: a total amalgamation of the song cycle and symphonic forms. The Philadelphia Orchestra performed the arrangement for chamber orchestra by Arnold Schoenberg and Rainer Riehn, with some players added.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Michelle DeYoung and The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

Mahler did not compose an opera, but the writing in Das Lied is intensely operatic and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been described as “a great singer’s conductor.” He chose two well-known international opera singers to interpret the songs, of which there are three for each voice: mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and tenor Russell Thomas.

Both DeYoung and Thomas were at their lyrical best. Their highly nuanced singing was skillfully varied in accordance with the wildly diverse texts adapted from Hans Bethge’s 1907 Nachdichtungen (free adaptations) of classical Chinese poetry Die chinesische FlöteMahler’s diverse compositional techniques require panoplies of emotion, from plaintive to ebullient. The two singers displayed solid, impressive techniques to support the challenging writing, which signifies the composer's own personal griefs, traumas and sense of mortality and the impermanence of life.

As in his Lieder eines farhrenden Gesellen, in Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (“The Drinking Song of Earthly Sorrow”), Mahler depicts the ephemeral aspects of earthly delights – azure skies, trilling birds, maidens picking flowers – while always aware of the specter, the underlying irony of the necessity of using drink to neutralize life’s grim realities.

Thomas forcefully conveyed the grim undertones of this and the other seemingly lighthearted drinking song, Der Trunkene im Frühling (“The Drunkard in Spring”), caring not for renewal, preferring denial and isolation. Both in this song and in Von der Jugend (“Of Youth”), with his effortless high notes and impressively powerful voice that easily carried over the orchestra, the tenor modulated his sound from savage to expressive to echo the contrasts between these two vastly different emotions and reflections on life.

Russell Thomas, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

DeYoung captured the essence of her first two songs, Der Einsame im Herbst (“The Lonely One in Autumn”) and Von der Schönheit (“Of Beauty”) by coaxing a sense of melancholy, fragility, and quietude from her lush voice, along with beautiful tone production, while Nézet-Séguin teased delicate wisps of sound from the strings. 

Nézet-Séguin elicited an exciting, shimmering sound from his orchestra with both power and precision, painting a canvas of diverse colors. He mined the orchestra’s strengths with inspiring assurance, especially in Der Abschied (“The Farewell”).

The length, improvisational-like writing and deep philosophical probing of the human mind make this final piece particularly problematic to bring off effectively. DeYoung’s vocal grace and psychologically insightful interpretation brought both strength and depth to the song. In the final lines, written by Mahler himself, she sang the last profound word, ewig, with touching emphasis and with tears.

Nézet-Séguin sustained the through lines all the way to the final notes, emphasizing the music’s chamber qualities. He drew an intimate sound from the orchestra appropriate for the delicacy of these sections and brought coherence to the wandering phrasing: an accomplishment that often has eluded even the most highly regarded conductors. 

This concert was reviewed from the Philadelphia Orchestra video stream.