Voices Illuminate Dark Landscape In Mahler’s ‘Das Lied’



Donald Runnicles was a replacement for Cleveland Orchestra music director laureate Christoph von Dohnányi.
By Daniel Hathaway

CLEVELAND — The Severance Hall audience got an unflinching look at the bittersweet ambivalence of living on this “beloved earth” on Feb. 9 when mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and tenor Paul Groves joined guest conductor Donald Runnicles and the Cleveland Orchestra in a luminous performance of Gustav Mahler’s song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde.

Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung: Her stage presence was transfixing.

In 1908, during a difficult time in his life, Mahler found emotional resonance in Die chinesische Flöte, Hans Bethge’s collection of re-imagined Chinese poems. “Life is dark, and so is death, so let’s empty our cups to the dregs,” Li T’ai-po writes in the first and fifth songs. Lonely autumnal thoughts in the second (after Chang Tsi) are balanced by Li T’ai-po’s outsiderly admiration of youth and beauty in the third and fourth. In the sixth and final movement, Mahler melds Bethge’s verses after Meng Kao-yen and Wang Wei into a long, poignant farewell interrupted by a halting but inexorable funeral march.

Sound depressing? Mahler rescues this hour-long piece from morbidity through the sheer, yearning beauty of his music and his colorful use of a huge orchestra. Explosive tuttis contrast with sparse passages involving dozens of instrumental solos and small ensembles in striking combinations.

Groves and DeYoung masterfully declaimed the poetry, alternating movements. Mahler gives the tenor the more sparkling material — two drinking songs and an ode to youth. Between brooding about autumn and bidding goodbye to a friend, the mezzo-soprano enjoys a fourth-movement respite of singing about glowing beauty, dashing horses, and the excitement of love.

Tenor Paul Groves: “bright, ringing tone.”

Except in a few passages, both singers easily made themselves heard through complex orchestral textures, Groves with his bright, ringing tone, DeYoung with her dark, plush timbre — though her understated diction sometimes made it difficult to follow along with the text. Her stage presence was transfixing, even during the interruption of that funeral march in “Der Abschied,” when she had nothing to do but stand by and subtly react to the music.

The Cleveland Orchestra was sonically splendid in tuttis and flawless in Mahler’s chamber music moments. Fine soloists were too numerous to call out, but flutist Joshua Smith, oboist Frank Rosenwein, English hornist Robert Walters, and trumpeter Michael Sachs were among the standouts. Contrabassoonist Jonathan Sherwin and the orchestra’s new bass clarinetist, Yann Ghiro, grounded the wind section with arresting low tones. In the valedictory movement, the resonant tam-tam added a Chinese flavor and the tinkling celesta a note of eternity.

Runnicles (one of the few left-handed conductors in the business) led an efficient, well-paced performance. He might have been more obvious about wanting to hold a long silence after the final “Ewig” — the audience jumped in much too quickly to applaud.

What else do you program along with Das Lied von der Erde? Music director laureate Christoph von Dohnányi, originally scheduled to conduct this program, chose Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony to begin the evening. Runnicles stayed with the plan, shaping an elegant performance with plenty of drama and extreme dynamic contrasts,  including some pianissimos that were nearly inaudible. Lovely, chaste wind solos by clarinetist Robert Woolfrey and oboist Jeffrey Rathbun graced the slow movement.

Daniel Hathaway is founder and editor of ClevelandClassical.com.