Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mahler in Sequence: Barenboim Adagio Sym # 10 and Das Lied

The summer of 1910 found Gustav Mahler a physically and emotionally sick man. Ill with a heart condition, his wife Alma unfaithful, physically drained from the rigors of directing the Vienna Opera combined with a disappointing season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Mahler was so weakened and aged he was frequently mistaken for Alma's father, not her husband. Winter 1910-1911 also found him back in New York, conducting the New York Philharmonic. In February 1911, he fell ill and returned to Europe. He did not live to see another summer.

In the midst of this was a new symphony; one different in many ways from his previous works. Solidly orchestral, as was the 9th, but perceptively breaking away from the past and plunging headlong into the new 20th century idiom. Gone were the ländlers, "Wunderhorn" song references and child like passages. The new symphony was gutsy, spare almost, but with its long melodic lines, drama and world-encompassing focus, it was still every note a work of Mahler.

Due to his death at 50 in May (99 years ago this past Monday), the symphony, which would have been number 10, lay incomplete. If it were not for a colossal effort by many heroes (a story in itself) we would never had heard a note of this remarkable work. In my humble opinion, it would have been his masterpiece.

Palpable was my disappointment that the Mahler in Sequence series would only include the Adagio to the 10, the one movement substantively completed by Mahler at his death. Taking over from Boulez in the cycle, Daniel Barenboim chose not to program one of the completed versions. But the Adagio is better than no 10th at all, even if it was performed out of sequence (before Das Lied and the 9th).

Bitter was my disappointment that this performance was the weakest of the 4 works I heard in this series. Barenboim simply did not have the orchestra rehearsed, they were tired, or Barenboim simply did not care for or understand the piece; likely a combination of the above. Missing were the subtle change of gears in this long lined, linear work. The adagio is not a splashy, colorful work, so it is imperative that the tempo relationships are adhered to so as to provide some contrast and movement. The slowish, draggy tempo persisted throughout, rendering the piece lifeless and virtually shapeless to boot.

My gregarious seat neighbor Paul noticed I was not applauding at all after the performance, but sitting quietly. "It was not real effective... but not that bad" he commented. "It was disappointing, but actually I am of the old school so I do not applaud between movements", I replied, registering my tacit protest at not hearing the rest of the work. Paul nodded in understanding and asked me about my favorite version of the completed 10.

Frankly, after this inadequate reading, I could only shudder as to what the rest would have sounded like.

The second half was redeemed by a stellar Das Lied von der Erde, helped by two excellent soloists and the orchestra's greater familiarity (I would assume) with this music.

German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt excelled in his 3 sections. "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde"("The Drinking Song of Earth's Misery"), was appropriately dramatic and arresting. "Von der Jugend" ("Of Youth") was a bit on the brisk side, but as the lightest and wittiest of the movements, the quick tempo was not totally out of place. "Der Trunkene im Frühling" (The Drunkard in Spring) had all the drunken merriment you would want, again a bit of a brisk pace.

"Do you know who he reminds me of?", asked Paul after the performance. "Fritz Wunderlich" we said at the same time. A young lady down the row nodded in agreement. A lyric tenor with some power behind his voice, Vogt is a natural for "Das Lied". I could only wish Barenboim allowed him a bit more time to relax and linger over some of the tenor's more lyrical passages. Not as commanding as the incomparable Ernst Häflinger in Walter's classic recording, but able to project his slightly heady voice through the orchestral textures.

Michelle De Young is one of the great Mezzos of this era. Full ranged, able to hit the low notes with out splatting and losing her diction. She could dance through "Von der Schöenheit"(Of Beauty), "drag exhausted" (as Mahler marked) through "Der Einsame im Herbst" (The Lonely One in Autumn), her sparse, tired sounding voice perfectly lamenting the resignation of the text: "My heart is weary, and I come to this beautiful place of rest, for I need solace: I weep much in my loneliness. Autumn lasts too long in my heart: Sun of Love, will you never shine and dry away my bitter tears?" Beautifully done.

The final movement, "Der Abschied", (The Farewell) is as long as the first 5 movements combined and taxes even the most accomplished mezzos. De Young was again in fine voice, but this time Barenboim didn't let her really dig into the text and mood of this and took the movement at too brisk a pace. He relaxed a bit in the final bars allowing the ethereal "ewig" figures from the mezzo to dissolve into space.

I actually came late to appreciate Das Lied. Spending time with the aforementioned Miller/Häflinger/Walter Das Lied converted me to a believer. This performance was not quite in that league, but a fine, sincere performance that lingers in my conscience. Ewig.... ewig....

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