By Lawrence B. Johnson
NEW YORK — It wasn’t exactly a Mahler immersion, the three concerts Esa-Pekka Salonen led over seven days at Carnegie Hall with the Met Opera Orchestra. But music of Mahler — early, middle, and late — provided a linking thread from program to intriguingly constructed program. Only up to a point, however, did that Leitmotif also deliver the peak experiences in this series.
The sequence unfolded as all-Mahler (May 31), Mahler plus Schumann (June 3), and — to put it in correct perspective — Sibelius plus Mahler (June 6). Common to all three programs was music for a pit ensemble, one that happens to rank among the world’s finest orchestras, by composers not associated with opera. Salonen gave the Met band a real chance to spread its wings. And what splendorous plumage it displayed.
For openers, Salonen paired Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D with the ten songs that make up Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), settings for two voices of poems from an anthology of German folk lyrics. Technically, there are twelve songs in Mahler’s Wunderhorn collection, but two — “Urlicht” and “Es sungen drei Engel” — are more often associated with their occurrences in Mahler’s Second and Third Symphonies, respectively. They were not performed here.
The First Symphony and Wunderhorn songs both came fairly early in Mahler’s creative maturity, and they exude an absolute command of writing for voice as well as orchestra; they also reveal the distinct imprimatur of an original hand. All of this was manifest in Salonen’s stylistically aware, emotionally charged account of symphony and songs alike.
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and tenor Matthew Polenzani shared the Wunderhorn assignment. Yet while they split the duty, the vocal results were somewhat skewed toward Graham, who not only produced a more imposing sound but also characterized each song with an authority that one did not consistently hear from the tenor.
The Wunderhorn songs cut a wide swath across the human condition in all its pathos, tenderness, mystery, and comedy. To each text, Graham brought subtle drama or wry wit: the supple grace and teasing spirit of “Rheinlegendchen” (Rhine legend), the harrowing inevitability of a child’s death in “Das irdische Leben” (Earthly life), and finally the broad parody of critics in “Lob des hohen Verstandes” (In praise of high intellect), ending in an unceremonious “Hee-haw!”
Though Polenzani was scrupulously attentive to the musical line, he gave the impression — in lusty songs like “Der Schildwache Nachtlied” (The sentinel’s nightsong) and “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm” (Song of the persecuted in the tower) — of exploring these verses for the first time; his emotional range was cautious and narrow. Where he could sail on a lyrical draft, as in “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” (Where the beautiful trumpets sound), Polenzani’s silvery sound was an unalloyed pleasure.
The elegance of Salonen’s leadership and the orchestra’s finesse, as well as its sheer power, in the Wunderhorn songs was even more striking in the First Symphony. From the still-voiced, diaphanous opening to the scherzo’s rollicking irregularity and the finale’s brassy blaze (with the French horns standing for their last grand proclamation, per Mahler’s instructions), this was one heady performance.
The second concert fast-forwarded into the autumn of Mahler’s life and what is perhaps his greatest achievement, the song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde. Like a series of portraits of the human condition (or, indeed, the human comedy), the work’s six “panels” invoke ancient Chinese poetry — albeit through the double filter of a German rendering of a French translation — to express life’s beauty, its youth and optimism, its seasoned loneliness and inebriate despair. Yet in the end, in a closing movement whose epic expanse nearly equals in length the first five parts combined, text and music ascend, not just in resignation, but in confidence, toward the pacific realm of death.
Salonen, whose personal immersion in Mahler goes back to his first youthful seasons as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, coaxed from the Met Orchestra the assured accent and idiomatic inflection one might expect from an ensemble well practiced in the music of this composer at once worldly and transcendental. In mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and tenor Stuart Skelton, Das Lied found just the voices needed — heroic, vibrant, supple — to infuse the text with earthy emotion and to match the orchestra’s expressive acuity.
With his first reeling flourish in “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” (The drinking song of the earth’s sorrow), Skelton set an immediate tone of world-weariness: “Schon winkt der Wein im goldnen Pokale/Doch trinkt noch nicht, erst sing ich euch ein Lied!” (The wine already beckons in the golden goblet/But do not drink yet, first I’ll sing you a song). It was almost Homeric: Settle in, this is going to be a true tale about the human lot, and the telling is going to take a while. Then, at the end, this bleary couplet: “Leert eure goldnen Becher zu Grund!/Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod!” (Drain your golden cups to the dregs./Dark is life, is death). Skelton made a fine drunk, in great voice.
Though the two singers share the six songs equally, it falls to the higher voice to carry Das Lied to a conclusion beyond mundane cares, beyond earthly limits, in “Der Abschied” (The farewell), the work’s vast summation. Cargill gave the music wings, dark and soft. Salonen drew especially eloquent playing from the Met Orchestra in the extended interlude between verses in “Der Abschied,” where the spiritual locus shifts from here below to a place — a condition — ascendant and eternal. In that episode of final leave-taking, Cargill’s radiant sound evoked nothing less than transmigration.
As prelude to Das Lied von der Erde, Salonen opened the concert with another work suggestive of Mother Earth and transcendence: Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat (Rhenish). The Met Orchestra gave this landscape painting a vigorous go, with an arresting interval of solemnity in the fourth movement, said to evoke the interior stained-glass grandeur of Cologne Cathedral. In this resplendent passage, Salonen’s generally brisk tempos gave way to patient, enveloping breadth.
With the final concert, Mahler took a back seat to Sibelius — farther back, indeed, than anticipated. Salonen opened with an account of the “Blumine” music that Mahler had recycled from accompaniment to a play to serve as the second movement of the First Symphony. But after just three performances, a combination of bad press and his own better judgment led the composer to drop the simplistic, repetitive “Blumine,” thereby reducing the First Symphony to the four-movement work we know. Hard to say why Salonen dredged up the “Blumine.” There really isn’t much to it.
But Mahler was also better represented on the program, conceptually anyway, by his song-cycle Kindertotenlieder, settings of five poems by Friedrich Rückert on the death of children. Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter was the roundly disappointing soloist. A dozen years ago, von Otter made a splendid recording of the Kindertotenlieder with Pierre Boulez conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. But at Carnegie Hall her voice displayed neither the bloom nor the power to convey the sorrow, confusion, and guilt that course through Mahler’s songs.
This night belonged to Sibelius, thanks to Salonen’s mastery and the wizardry of violinist Christian Tetzlaff, an electrifying soloist in the Violin Concerto. Salonen capped this little series of Mahler-laced concerts with a work on the far side of the universe from that architect of worlds within symphonies: the Sibelius Seventh, a single 20-minute flourish of musical economy, writ in fragile lines and sparkling motifs. It is perhaps Sibelius’ least performed symphony. After the fine-spun performance by Salonen and the Met Orchestra, one could only wonder why.
Lawrence B. Johnson, editor of the performing arts web magazine Chicago On the Aisle, was for many years music critic for The Detroit News and has written for The New York Times as well as several music magazines.