Last Sunday afternoon, Dave and I went to Davies Hall to hear MTT conducting the San Francisco Symphony in a terrific performance of Gustav Mahler’s melancholy Das Lied von der Erde. It’s not a work I know well at all; I’ve heard it in concert only once before, and I don’t recall ever listening to it much on recordings.
I enjoyed the performance a lot. The work is a series of songs for alto and tenor (according to Mahler’s score, a baritone can sing the alto part an octave lower, but he apparently thought it would be too unseemly for a soprano to sing the rowdier tenor part, which contains songs praising wine and drunkenness, an octave higher).
I’m a words person more than a music person, and so as much of my pleasure was in the texts as it was in the music. The poems are German translations (very loosely) of a number of Chinese poems. Mahler himself made some changes to the German poems to make the words fit better with the music he wanted to write, and then the German poems themselves were not translated directly from the Chinese but from a French translation of the Chinese. Dave sent me the link to a website that has all four versions of the poems: Chinese originals, French translations, German translations of the French, and Mahler’s versions. Looks fascinating, and I hope to get into it as I have time.
The performance was very good. The orchestra was huge — they had more musicians crowded onto the stage than I remember ever seeing before. The music was clear and vivid and eloquently conducted. The singers were good; the tenor Simon O’Neill especially. The vocal parts can’t be easy: The work would seem to call for more of a Lieder style of singing, where communicating the poetry with nuance and detail is as important as singing beautifully; yet the way Mahler wrote the music, the singer is sometimes accompanied by the whole orchestra playing loudly, and in that kind of situation it’s difficult for the singer to do much more than just be heard at all. Mr. O’Neill, I thought, handled it well, making a good loud sound when needed and giving attention to the subtleties in the poetry when he could. The mezzo-soprano, Sasha Cooke, has a lovely, strong sound, but even when the orchestra was hushed and she could be clearly heard, one couldn’t really tell what words she was singing. Many of her vowels sounded a lot more Italian than German, at least to my ear, and many of her consonants were inaudible. Oh well. There are certainly music lovers who prefer it that way.
Dave tells me that Das Lied was written after Mahler had learned about his wife’s affair with the architect Walter Gropius; he was shattered by it (though, really, Dave has showed me a few of Mahler’s letters to his wife, and they are so patronizing and controlling of her — in one, he explains why it’s bad for her character to be reading the plays of Ibsen, and recommends to her that she stop! — that it’s not hard to see why she might have been feeling increasingly claustrophic in her marriage to him and inclined to rebel sometimes). And then it was another blow for him to lose one of his young daughters to scarlet fever, and yet another to learn that he himself had a heart condition that required him to give up everything strenuous, and which might cause him to die relatively young anyway (and it did, just a few years later at the age of fifty, after a month of hard work conducting and touring with the New York Philharmonic). So Dave says that Das Lied was Mahler’s farewell to his wife, to his daughter, and to life itself.
So now I’ve got a 1960 recording conducted by Bruno Walter, which Dave recommended, on my smartphone, and I’m listening to it and getting to know it better.