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Hail Fellow, Well MET

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
06/03/2017 -  
Robert Schumann: Symphony No.3 in E-flat major, Op.97 “Rhenish”
Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Karen Cargill (Mezzo-Soprano), Stuart Skelton (Tenor)
The MET Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

K. Cargill (© KK Dundas)

“...even the hardships and the horrors you will seem to see through a veil of translucent and shimmering glass, since almost always the salient points of the narrative will be in the past.”
Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature

Attempting to mitigate some of the darkness of the Sixth Symphony, Mahler eliminated one of the three hammer blows of Fate which he had inflicted upon his hero persona. But in his own life, he was struck mercilessly three times during a brief period. First he lost his position at the Vienna Opera. Then his beloved daughter died. And finally he was diagnosed immediately thereafter with a fatal form of heart disease. Reeling from these cruel shocks, he retreated into a volume of poetry accumulated by Hans Bethge and called The Chinese Flute. The volume was very popular in Vienna and featured the poetry of the ancient Li-Tai-Po. One of the greatest Mahler conductors of the 1920’s, Anton Webern, also set Li’s poetry to music and the Swedish composer Sigurd von Koch’s song cycle The Wild Swans of 1918 is based on the same Bethge volume. When Mahler began to search for a new subject for a symphony, these verses came to mind and their thoughts and premonitions of death were ideally suited to the master’s final song cycle.

The six movement structure recalls the Third Symphony as does the bursting forth of the horns at the beginning of the first song. Mahler’s familiarity with Verdi’s Otello is apparent in these attention-grabbing first measures as the tenor launches into The Drinking Song of the Misery of the World with its hallucinations of graveyards and spectral creatures. Unfortunately, maestro Salonen unleashed his orchestral forces from the first note and, although this was quite thrilling, they almost completely drowned the tenor of Mr. Skelton. The “best orchestra in New York” sounded rather ragged, the first trumpet committing an egregious foul which might have been overlooked had he not come back later in the same song with an even greater nails on the chalkboard faux pas.

The unique harmonies of the pentachord and the plaintive sonority of the cor anglais punctuate the misery of Loneliness in Autumn, sung either by a low mezzo or a baritone. Here life is just a memory (“The sweet scent of the flowers has dispersed...”) and death is seen as a welcome rest (“It is time to sleep”). A similar mood is created by Richard Strauss in September, one of his Four Last Songs, based on the Orientalism of poet Hermann Hesse. Ms. Cargill demonstrated right from the start that, although she is a mezzo, she can morph into a contralto with apparent ease. Her singing throughout was the crowning jewel of this performance.

Life’s parallel existence as memory is explored in the next Song of Youth. Here an entire universe is charmingly created in the reflection of a gathering at a pavilion in the middle of a lake. The mirror dwellers talk and laugh and some are even writing poetry. The two sets of friends, separated by the space between the world of the physical and that of the reflection, are reminiscent of the past and the present treated as characters in the Rückertlieder song Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft, itself written in imitation of East Asian poetry. Their independent existence helps to distance the persona of these songs from the temporal reality of life and enables him to shed the skin of mortality. Bruno Walter, who conducted the posthumous premiere of these songs, points out that in Das Lied, Mahler finally abandons the character of the hero who has existed in all of his previous symphonies. The “I” gives way to the experience of life itself. Structurally, the song is a subtle juxtaposition of slightly askew counter-poses, the delicate instrumentation led by the flute lagging just a beat behind the tenor at the outset and eventually outpacing him by a similar interval of time at the conclusion. Which is reality and which reflection? Here the ensemble was tamed enough for Mr. Skelton to shine through.

The fourth, Song of Beauty longs to stay in the world of the sensual, but the fifth, The Drunkard in Spring rejects that same world of beauty for the pleasures of intoxication. Salonen the necromancer presented his orchestra as if they were a memory and then allowed his tenor acoustical room which turned out to be a bit of a mixed blessing as he was flat at least three distinct times. Parenthetically, Mahler, who re-orchestrated the symphonies of Schumann and “retouched” the great works of Beethoven, has no trouble changing the lines of Li-Tai-Po to suit his own dramatic needs.

Musically, Das Lied is really in two sections. The first five songs form a suite while the final movement, more than twice as long as any of the others, fills the role of the great Adagio from the Third Symphonyas a prolonged goodbye. In fact the song is called Der Abschied (The Farewell) and totally destroys the personality of the hero in favor of the experience around him (or her in the mezzo version). The ending of the song (and the piece) sings that nature will go on eternally, long after the singer has departed. The final word “Ewig” (forever) is repeated many times, each time more quietly as it drifts into the void.

Also on the program was the Schumann “Rhenish” Symphony. This was a powerful rendition, beginning in medias res and never compromising. Salonen introduced melodies organically, coming out of chords as if they were impatient to get out into the ether. The Scherzo began like a barcarolle but grew more and more tense. Although the trumpet calls were almost drowned, they were audible if one strained just a tad. Very satisfying music making, although it might have been more interesting and appropriate to employ the Mahlerian orchestration for this performance, but that might have simply been Ei in meinem Bier!

Fred Kirshnit



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