Many of us would rate Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde among their top ten Desert Island Discs. Why it has taken the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra 27 years to reprise what Leonard Bernstein described as Mahler’s “greatest symphony” defies logical explanation. Some of Mahler’s other works receive regular airings, but even Marcus Stenz omitted this sublime work from his cycle of complete symphonies by Gustav Mahler.
Arguably, Das Lied von der Erde may not be, strictly speaking, a symphony; nevertheless, Sir Andrew Davis has called it “a symphony of voices” and we can be grateful that he has chosen to include it in his Mahler cycle with the MSO.
There have been numerous recordings of this work, subtitled “A Symphony for Tenor and Alto (or Baritone)”. Most have been with full orchestra tenor and alto, with the most famous being the Kathleen Ferrier/Julius Patzac/Bruno Walter combination. A few have opted for the alternative baritone/tenor combination – a less popular choice until Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau made a persuasive case in support of it. Jonas Kaufmann’s recent recording, in which he sings all songs, has also attracted much praise. Smaller orchestral forces have been used, and Mahler’s own piano version with Moser, Fassbaender and Katsaris has been recorded.
Whatever the merits of these recorded versions, a live performance is a very different matter. There is no tweaking of balance in favour of the singers for instance, which makes the opening Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (“Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow”) an enormous challenge. A bright, penetrating tenor voice may be able to cut through a Mahler orchestra in full cry, but a burnished timbre of almost baritone quality must rely on focussed tone and sheer vocal heft. Stuart Skelton is one of the few able to combine consistent beauty of sound with the heroic might embodied in the label Heldentenor. The thrilling horn entry and Skelton’s own clarion call to listen to “the song of sorrow that shall resound laughingly in the soul”, with its despairing crescendo on “Seele”, was the beginning of a thrilling wave of passion culminating in a despairing “den süssen Duft des Lebens” (the sweet fragrance of life), which railed against the shortness of life. Skelton also brought musical nuance to his shaping of the refrain “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” (Dark is life, dark is death) and offered potent contrasts between angry outbursts and quieter passages of bitter desolation.
Skelton’s characterisation of the sentiments expressed in this German rendering of all three of Li-Tai-Po’s poems was compelling. He gave a graceful account of the more upbeat Von der Jugend (Of Youth) and injected humour into Der Trunkene im Früling (The Drunken Man in Spring). His final long, high note was yet another example of impressive breath control and vocal security. Singing without a score, he was musically confident and fully engaged in the drama.
British mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers gave a sensitive and highly expressive account of the three alto songs. Her voice tended more to the dry than the opulent, but there were moments when her top notes bloomed beautifully. With customary excellent diction and a considered approach to both words and music, she invested the final Der Abschied (The Farewell) with meaning and great poignancy. Her vocal line was steadier in the softer passages as the repeated “ewig, ewig” brought comfort and hope to the closing notes of “The Song of the Earth”.
Sir Andrew has described the orchestral component of this work as the “third voice” and it would be hard to argue with this proposition. Because there was so much exceptionally fine playing from all sections of the orchestra, it is difficult to single out those deserving particular mention. Nevertheless, the contribution of the woodwinds cannot be passed over, most notably, the plaintive lyricism of Jeffrey Crellin’s oboe. It was also a pleasure to hear such a well-integrated horn section.
The horn and wind sections were also important contributors to the success of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 Unfinished, which constituted the first half of the program. In both works the lower strings provided an underpinning of rich tone, while the upper strings ranged from searing, driving passion to translucent delicacy. Sir Andrew moulded tempi and dynamics with careful attention to detail and contrast, allowing the music to breathe while maintaining momentum. The way he embraced the soloists and acknowledged the contribution of the orchestra at the end of both concerts indicated his appreciation of outstanding collaborative endeavour.
Judging from the cheers and applause, the audience certainly had no thoughts of the self-harm Mahler had feared his work might provoke. Perhaps his doubts were fuelled by the battalion of woes afflicting him at the time: professional stress, serious health problems, his four-year-old daughter’s death, his mother-in-law’s heart attack and his wife’s profound grief. Instead, what we experienced was awed respect for Mahler’s essentially uplifting genius and gratitude for such an inspiring performance.
We can only hope that it will not take another 27 years before the MSO performs it again.
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performed the Mahler at the Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall
on June 29 and July 1.