By Richard S. Ginell
SAN FRANCISCO — Over two decades, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony have performed and recorded almost all the works of Mahler — with the conspicuous absence of the unfinished Symphony No. 10 in one of its completions — and a naïve observer might think that they have said it all on this subject. But they’re not through yet. MTT and the SFS have revisited Mahler from one to three times per season — refining, probing, experimenting, occasionally adding a bit more to the recorded cycle.
In their first concerts of 2017, Tilson Thomas and the orchestra went back to the well to do something rather different. They led off the evening of Jan. 14 at Davies Symphony Hall with the discarded “Blumine” movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, followed by Songs of a Wayfarer, and then attempted a semi-staging of the not-often-performed cantata Das klagende Lied. Taken as a whole, it was very clever, instructive programming. Not only was this trio of works a concise summary of a young composer at the beginning of his career, but every piece here was related in some way to the Symphony No. 1, which in turn was the launching pad for everything symphonic that followed.
Now, Das klagende Lied is not an opera; it’s a cantata for four vocal soloists, chorus, and a large orchestra that tells a grim story about two brothers — a nice one and a nasty one — competing for the affections of an ice queen. Whoever finds a red flower in the forest wins her hand. The nice brother finds the flower, but is killed in his sleep by the nasty one, who steals the flower and gets the queen. But when a strolling musician finds a white bone and makes a flute out of it, the instrument sings the lament of the dead brother, and that leads to the breakup of the wedding ceremony and collapse of the queen’s castle.
That’s the plot, but the real attraction of Das klagende Lied is the light it shines on the 20-year-old Mahler. His musical profile is amazingly fully-formed, and his command of a massive apparatus of musicians over a long time span is stupendous, even though he had no way of knowing then whether his orchestrations were any good. We hear direct and indirect premonitions of Songs of a Wayfarer, the Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, even as far up in time as the Rückertlieder. Mahler eventually deleted the first part of the piece, “Waldmärchen” — which was a mistake, since it sets forth the plot — and one wonders whether he did so in part because this music contains most of the seeds for future works. Even after the section was reinstated in the 20th century, some conductors continued to delete “Waldmärchen” — like the late Pierre Boulez, who, ironically, was the first to record it before changing his mind near the end of his life.
For Tilson Thomas, who has been making a habit of adapting works for multimedia productions, Das klagende Lied should not only be performed in toto, but might be enhanced by video projections, lighting effects, dance, mime, costumes, and stage movements. But I’m not sure that all of this added much to the piece. Director James Darrah’s staging for the four vocal soloists, a couple of children, and a team of four crawling, writhing dancers was confusing; one couldn’t easily tell who was doing what to whom. Can’t blame him much, though, for Mahler passes the roles and the narration around liberally among the singers and the chorus. The projections consisted mostly of pale, static forest scenes with occasional falling leaves and puffs of smoke suggesting the collapse of the castle. The production made the most sense when a singer occasionally seemed to be telling a fairy tale to an attentive child.
But the main glory was the performance of the music, which showed how far the standards of this partnership have been raised since MTT came to town in 1995. Tilson Thomas and the SFS recorded Das klagende Lied for RCA (reissued on the orchestra’s SFS Media label) near the beginning of his tenure in a bold, brash performance. Now, although the tempos are faster, the rough edges have been refined and polished without losing the basic thread of excitement, the rhythms remain sharp, and the textures are richer and more probing.
The four soloists — soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Michael König, baritone Brian Mulligan — projected passionately, and the offstage band in the Part 3 wedding scene played with a wonderful, almost reckless raucousness. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus — peeking out from a “ripped” hole in the backing shell as per the SFS production of Peter Grimes in 2014 — sang with robust splendor. Again, as in 2014, I noticed how much better the sound is focused in this hall in this configuration.
The delicate “Blumine,” like “Waldmärchen,” was an orphan for the first two-thirds of the 20th century, before its first recording by Frank Brieff and the New Haven Symphony in 1968. Since then, a few conductors insert “Blumine” into its old slot in the Symphony No. 1 (the finale refers to it), but Tilson Thomas prefers to play it as a stand-alone piece, recording it for the “Masterpieces in Miniature” CD as an encore to his Mahler Project. This performance sounded even deeper with a darker tinge, never tipping over into schmaltz.
Songs of a Wayfarer, which Tilson Thomas previously recorded live with baritone Thomas Hampson, now features the mezzo-soprano Cooke, who sang gorgeously, with steady controlled emotion even at the slowest tempos as MTT drew ever more inward. I don’t think I’ve heard it performed better live.
Clearly, Tilson Thomas and the SFS have become a Mahler team second to none in the world, and they are becoming even more formidable as they return to the repertoire. Later this season, they will finish the portrait of the young Mahler when members of the SFS perform the single surviving movement of his Piano Quartet in A Minor Jan. 29 and MTT conducts the Symphony No. 1 (along with the Adagio from the Tenth) Mar. 30 through Apr. 2. Now, how about the completed Tenth someday?
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.