GUSTAV MAHLER (1860 – 1911): Das Lied von der Erde — Clay Hilley (tenor), Stephen Powell (baritone); Amici Musicorum; Steven White, conductor [Streamed performance by Opera Roanoke, Jefferson Center, Roanoke, Virginia, USA; 13 December 2020 (recorded on 20 November 2020)]
The work of Gustav Mahler is one of Western music’s most consequential crossroads. Regarded by some musicologists and music lovers as a prophet whose scores inaugurated modernity in Classical Music and by others as a talented but over-esteemed creator of cacophonous musical behemoths, Mahler was both a man and an artist of contradictions. To the traditions of Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms he brought Jewish and Bohemian sensibilities, his singular, ever-evolving notion of an artist’s relationships with past, present, and future shaped by his own interactions with the cultures that nourished his creative impulses. In his music, Mahler fused Renaissance polyphony, Baroque counterpoint, the symmetry of Viennese Classicism, and Romantic temperament with innovative thematic development and bold instrumentation that translated the idioms of previous generations into the musical languages of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. All roads do not lead to Rome, but it can be argued that, particularly in his Symphonies, all music meets in Mahler.
His characteristic pragmatism did not lessen Mahler’s superstitious wariness of the precedent of no major composer since Beethoven having survived beyond the completion of a ninth symphony. Keen to circumvent the effects of the seeming curse on composers’ ninth endeavors in symphonic form, Mahler styled his ‘Symphonie für eine Tenor- und eine Alt- (oder Bariton-) Stimme und Orchester’ not as a conventional numbered symphony but as Das Lied von der Erde, a colossal musical essay in six movements that at once harkened back to Robert Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethes Faust and prefigured Schönberg’s contemporaneous Erwartung, composed in 1909 but not performed until 1924.
The ruse failed: following his completion of the symphony that he acknowledged as his ninth, Mahler died before finishing its successor. The 1907 publication of Die chinesische Flöte, Hans Bethge’s collection of German translations of poetry from China’s Tang dynasty, influenced Teutonic artistic circles much as Goethe’s writing had done a century earlier, and Mahler found in words written in the Eighth Century echoes of his life’s sorrows, doubts, and fleeting joys. Returned from his acclaimed début season on the podium of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Mahler spent the summer of 1907 in the Tyrolean countryside, where the vivid imagery of Die chinesische Flöte inspired the aural tableaux of Das Lied von der Erde.
The composition of Das Lied von der Erde was to some degree a means of confronting adversities that plagued Mahler in the months prior to his departure for New York in late 1907. The deteriorating political climate of the final years of the Austro-Hungarian empire ended his directorship of the Wiener Hofoper, his beloved daughter Maria was lost to illness, and his own mortality was manifested in the diagnosis of the heart condition that ended his life in May 1911, six months before Das Lied von der Erde’s world première in Munich’s Tonhalle, a structure that, as seems sadly portended by its association with this product of Mahler’s anguish, was destroyed during the 1944 Allied bombing of the Bavarian capital. Bethge’s translations of texts by Li Bai, Zhang Ji, Meng Haoran, and Wang Wei spurred the composer’s musical response to his contrasting suffering and success.
Filmed in Roanoke’s Jefferson Center on 20 November 2020, Opera Roanoke’s performance of Das Lied von der Erde adapted the power of Mahler’s score to the physical limitations and emotional implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, movingly enacting the timely conflict between hope and resignation that permeates the piece. Under the baton of Opera Roanoke’s Artistic Director Steven White, the fifteen musicians of the recently-formed chamber ensemble Amici Musicorum—Akemi Takayama (violin and concertmaster), Matvey Lapin (violin), Bernard DiGregorio (viola), Kelley Mikkelsen (cello), John P. Smith IV (double bass), Julee Hickcox (flute and piccolo), William P. Parrish, Jr. (oboe and English horn), Carmen Eby (clarinet, E♭ clarinet, and bass clarinet), Scott Bartlett (bassoon), Abigail Pack (horn), William Ray (percussion), Al Wojtera (percussion), Scott Watkins (piano), Erica Sipes (harmonium and celesta), and Jeff Midkiff (mandolin)—transformed the subtleties of Arnold Schönberg’s and Rainer Riehn’s arrangement of Mahler’s opulently-orchestrated score, to which White rightly restored the crucial writing for mandolin, into expressive details that melded like stones in a mosaic to create vibrant soundscapes.
Mahler’s music demands technical prowess of the sort demonstrated by Amici Musicorum in this performance, but the musicians’ playing achieved mastery of considerably more than notes and rhythms. Even when Mahler’s original orchestrations are employed, the prevailing atmosphere of Das Lied von der Erde is often reservedly contemplative, the surging swells of sound accentuating passages of introspective intimacy. Though unfailingly effective from a musical perspective, Mahler’s complex instrumental writing sometimes emphasizes awkward phrasing in his word settings, but White ensured that Amici Musicorum’s sonic textures supported the singers’ efforts at elucidating text. Indeed, the instruments frequently seemed to communicate the words as naturally and impactfully as the voices. Midkiff’s spirited playing validated the sagacity of White’s reinstatement of the mandolin in ‘Von der Schönheit’ and ‘Der Abschied,’ and Sipes adroitly exhibited how integral the distinctive timbres of the harmonium and celesta are to Das Lied von der Erde’s sound world. The many challenges for strings, winds, and percussion were exultantly and gracefully conquered.
White’s affection and respect for the music were apparent in his discerning but unaffected handling of the score. The first and many subsequent performances of Das Lied von der Erde were conducted by Mahler’s friend and champion Bruno Walter, whose interpretation of the score is extensively documented on recordings. White’s conducting of Opera Roanoke’s Das Lied von der Erde integrated a sense of enraptured solemnity reminiscent of Walter’s performances with elements of Hans Rosbaud’s stylistic acuity and Jascha Horenstein’s fervor. His tempi were drawn from rather than imposed upon the score, his pacing closely aligned with the cadences of the text. As in all of Mahler’s symphonies, evincing the emotional gravity of the transitions of tempo and dynamics that drive Das Lied von der Erde is arguably a conductor’s paramount duty. White wholly fulfilled this responsibility, his reading of the score ennobled by selfless service to the music.
Der Liedermacher: caricature of Gustav Mahler by tenor Enrico Caruso for The Musical Courier, 1908
Throughout the performance, tenor Clay Hilley sang strongly, only a few instances of compromised intonation and avoidance of Mahler’s quieter dynamic markings betraying the exertion expended in his voicing of the music. He vanquished the assault on the voice’s passaggio in ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde,’ confidently projecting both the profusion of Fs, F♯s, and Gs at the top of the stave and the euphoric top B♭. Hilley articulated ‘Ein voller Becher Weins zur rechten Zeit ist mehr wert’ heartily, and his assured singing of ‘Das Firmament blaut ewig’ heightened the psychological reverberations of the text, underscoring the kinship between Mahler’s vocal lines and Wagner’s music for his Tristan. Hilley delivered the repetitions of ‘Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod’ pointedly, giving each statement unique inflections.
Baritone Stephen Powell was also tasked with overcoming difficult tessitura, and his poised singing of the pianissimo opening of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ epitomized the uniformly high quality of his work. The shimmering colorations of Powell’s voice were tailored to the nuances of the words, not least in his insightful enunciation of ‘Der süße Duft der Blumen ist verflogen.’ The baritone’s clear diction allowed the listener to appreciate Mahler’s visceral tone painting with uncommon immediacy, the poet’s symbolism illuminated by the singer’s vocal acting. Aided by White’s eloquent sculpting of the instrumental substratum, the sincerity of Powell’s voicing of ‘Ich weine viel in meinen Einsamkeiten’ fostered a poignant aura of desolation that intensified the music’s intrinsic quest for hope.
The virility of Hilley’s singing of ‘Von der Jugend’ was exhilarating, his top As secure and sonorous. In ‘Auf des kleinen, kleinen Teiches stiller,’ a passage in which Mahler expressed his desire for tranquility with a specification of ‘Ruhiger,’ the tenor lightened his voice to disclose the narrator’s vulnerability. Hilley’s vocalism grew more resilient as he sang ‘Alles auf dem Kopfe stehend,’ the bronzed patina of his tones imparting the primal wildness that lurks in the music. Wagner’s influence on Mahler’s vocal writing was again unusually perceptible, Hilley’s singing prompting thoughts of Act Two of Tannhäuser.
The descents below the stave in ‘Von der Schönheit’ rarely troubled Powell, his voice retaining resonance and focus to the bottom of the range. Particular care was devoted to his voicing of ‘Gold’ne Sonne webt um die Gestalten,’ and Mahler’s marking ‘Immer fließend’ was meticulously observed by singer and conductor in their exquisite rendering of ‘Das Roß des einen wiehert fröhlich auf und scheut und saust dahin.’ Blending beauty of tone with unwavering concentration on communicating the words, never more effectively than in this movement, Powell’s singing recalled the Lieder performances of Herbert Janssen.
Hilley’s finest singing of the performance was heard in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling,’ in which he deployed boundless energy and imagination. Here, too, his top As were produced with elan, White’s tempo—or, rather, Mahler’s tempo, precisely realized by White—facilitating congenial placement of the tenor’s upper register. The cry of ‘Horch!’ was uttered with surprising but understated spontaneity, Hilley approaching the passage with touchingly inward reflection. The song’s climactic top B♭, vigorously sung, rousingly asserted the intoxicating credo of the text and brought the journey of Hilley’s performance to a memorable destination.
Powell’s singing of ‘Der Abschied’ displayed tremendous breath control, his phrasing of the meandering lines guided by cognizance of each word’s function in the music’s cumulative narrative trajectory. An attitude of discovery suffused his account of ‘O sieh! Wie eine Silberbarke schwebt,’ metamorphosing into weariness in ‘Alle Sehnsucht will nun träumen.’ Powell’s intoning of ‘Er sprach, seine Stimme war umflort’ was tinged with cynicism, exploring an undercurrent of disquieting doubt that courses through the text and is amplified by the chromatic ambiguity of the music. Powell’s voicing of ‘Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz’ resounded with pained yearning for inner peace, and his hushed singing of the statements of ‘Ewig’ with which the song ends evoked surrender to the inevitable cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
In too many performances of Das Lied von der Erde, overabundances of reverence for Mahler’s legacy as a progressive, sometimes inscrutable musical trailblazer beget pomposity that undermines the piece’s capacity to lure listeners into an exotic world in which words and music tell stories that are both familiar and always new. Mahler’s genius should be revered and his music studied and respected, but of what real value is genius if it can only be experienced from a respectful distance? Despite the physical separation necessitated by the battle against COVID-19, Opera Roanoke’s superbly cathartic performance of Das Lied von der Erde breached the barriers that often prevent audiences from connecting with Mahler’s music on a personal level. The words are of another millennium, the music from a time not so distant but inestimably different from today, but this was unmistakably a song of our earth.
Opera Roanoke’s performance of Das Lied von der Erde can be viewed below or by clicking here.