SAN FRANCISCO — Das Lied Von Erde, Mahler’s gigantic unnumbered symphony disguised as a song cycle, played a big role in the emotional and musical development of Michael Tilson Thomas. He says that he first heard the work at age 13 from a recording and divides his life from “between before I heard that recording, and after I heard it.” It was also the piece with which he bonded with Leonard Bernstein – the spark plug who ignited the Mahler boom in the 1960s – upon their first meeting, as described in an interview for Tilson Thomas’s book Vive Voce. Bernstein asked Tilson Thomas if he could only keep one moment in music, what would it be – and MTT went to the piano and played the moody, oscillating minor thirds for clarinets and harp and the lonely oboe melody on top in “Der Abschied.” They became friends for life after that.
Das Lied also meant a lot to me as a teenager. Rummaging through the Salvation Army depot in Santa Monica when I was 17, I found an intact seven-disc 78 RPM set containing the first recording of the piece, conducted by Mahler disciple Bruno Walter in a live Vienna concert in 1936. That’s how I learned the piece, from 78s. (I might add, I may be the LAST music critic who ever learned Das Lied from 78s, and I can still remember where the side breaks were whenever I hear the piece today!). It’s still my favorite recording of Das Lied – more so than Walter’s famous Vienna Philharmonic/Kathleen Ferrier session or the last one with the New York Philharmonic. Tenor Charles Kullman tugs and pushes heroically with Walter’s heavings, and mezzo-soprano Kerstin Thorborg holds out “Der Abschied’s” final, ethereal sighs of “Ewig … ewig” to a heartbreaking eternity. Das Lied put an immediate emotional grip upon me from those records – and it hasn’t let go since.
Tilson Thomas’s own 2007 recording of Das Lied, as it happens, is also one of the most moving on record – perhaps the best performance of all in his massive “Mahler Project” – and that was reason enough to trek up to San Francisco to hear him tackle it again at Davies Hall with the San Francisco Symphony Apr. 6. In previous performances and on the recording, Tilson Thomas used a baritone – the estimable Mahlerian Thomas Hampson – in the even-numbered songs, but this time, he opted for the more-frequently-encountered mezzo-soprano option.
In addition, he prefaced Das Lied with a dark, weighty, powerful, big-orchestra performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony that in itself was a statement of intent. Tilson Thomas once mused to me that Mahler basically fulfilled Schubert’s ambitions using Wagner’s methods, so with this sequence, we have Mahler picking up the thread from fellow nature lover, songwriter and symphonist Schubert, with an unfinished symphony symbolizing Schubert’s unrealized potential.
Though Mahler is heard almost as often as Beethoven nowadays in concert, and recordings of Das Lied abound, the piece isn’t played live as often as the symphonies. Even that prolific Mahler buff Gustavo Dudamel didn’t include it in his live Los Angeles/Caracas cycle of the completed symphonies in 2012, nor does it show up in his upcoming series of Mahler song cycles (which will also be coupled with Schubert symphonies) in May 2017.
There may be other reasons, but I suspect that a big one may be the scarcity of skilled Heldentenors daring and foolish enough to tackle the treacherous vocal line of the first song, “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde.” The strain is practically built in, the voice striving to be heard over Mahler’s giant, complex orchestrations loaded with tonality-stretching angst and deceptively relaxed pianissimos. The Heldentenor-du-jour from New Zealand, Simon O’Neill, gave it his all in San Francisco with the right approach yet just barely made it over the bar in the first song, cresting more easily in “Von der Jugend” and “Der Trunkene im Frühling.”
MTT’s approach differed hardly at all from what worked so well in 2007; indeed, the timing in 2016 was just two seconds faster overall. Everything was painstakingly inflected, the rhythms swung firmly, the introverted passages flowed lushly and deeply with dark undercurrents, the SFS made a glorious, minutely-controlled helter-skelter out of the central escapade of “Von der Schönheit.”
Yet what lifted this performance into the category of unearthly was Sasha Cooke, perfectly cast with her large, rock-steady, opulent mezzo. She could send shivers down the spine with just a single word, “Sehnsucht,” in “Schönheit.” She grew even more impassioned and commanding as “Der Abschied” unfolded, with MTT hurtling headlong through the more emotional passages without spilling over into schmaltz, making a marvelously suspenseful transition into the final magical stanza.
And there, in the final repeated words, “Ewig … ewig,” Cooke and Tilson Thomas levitated ever higher, drawing the music out to such an otherworldly degree that it brought back those grinding 78 RPM surfaces and Thorborg sailing magically into eternity. You can’t say anything after such a performance, and shouldn’t even try. Just walk out into the unseasonably warm San Franciscan night, caught in Mahler’s grip.