Attempting to mitigate some of the darkness of the sixth symphony, Mahler eliminated one of the three hammerblows of Fate which he had inflicted upon his hero persona. But in his own life, he was struck mercilessly three times during a brief period. First he lost his position at the Vienna Opera. Then his beloved daughter died. And finally he was diagnosed immediately thereafter with a fatal form of heart disease. Reeling from these cruel shocks, he retreated into a collection of poetry accumulated by Hans Bethge titled The Chinese Flute. The volume was very popular in Vienna and featured the poetry of the ancient Li-Tai-Po. One of the greatest Mahler conductors of the 1920's, Anton Webern, also set Li's poetry to music and the Swedish composer Sigurd von Koch's song cycle The Wild Swans of 1918 is based on the same Bethge volume. When Mahler began to search for a new subject for a symphony, these verses came to mind and their thoughts and premonitions of death were ideally suited to the master's final song cycle.
Ford Madox Ford, in The March of Literature, writing about detachment in this particular genre of Chinese poetry, states that "…even the hardships and the horrors you will seem to see through a veil of translucent and shimmering glass, since almost always the salient points of the narrative will be in the past." Out of this variation of perception came Das Lied von der Erde, celebrating its 100th anniversary and presented at the Baryshnikov Arts Center by the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble.
In this intimate venue, St. Luke's opted for the performing reduction by Arnold Schoenberg. As his protégé, Schoenberg had often talked about arrangements with Mahler, the older man encouraging him to rescore his Verklaerte Nacht for string orchestra so that conductors like Mahler could present it to the wider world. A devout triskaidekaphobe, Schoenberg scored his version of The Song of the Earth for fourteen instrumentalists.
Mahler's own conducting of Verdi's Otello was apparent in the attention grabbing first measures as Paul Groves launched into The Drinking Song of the Misery of the World with its hallucinations of graveyards and spectral creatures. Bursting through with this ear-catching dissonance, Mr. Groves sounded every bit the heroic tenor, bravely swimming against the tide. There were even memories of Wunderlich in his steadfast interpretation. The ensemble played expertly under George Manahan, the most consistent veteran of the now virtually comatose New York City Opera.
The unique harmonies of the pentachord and the plaintive sonority of the cor anglais punctuate the misery of Loneliness in Autumn, designed to be sung either by a deep mezzo or baritone. Jennifer Johnson Cano handled her part with solid control of a clearly superior instrument, although her gingerly approach to diction produced accurate but stilted passages distressingly lower in volume than the norm that she had established. One felt that she was slowing down to avoid a patch of ice a few times too often for this reviewer's comfort.
Life's parallel existence as memory is explored in the next Song of Youth. Here an entire universe is charmingly created in the reflection of a gathering at a pavilion in the middle of a lake. The mirror dwellers talk and laugh and some are even writing poetry. The two sets of friends, separated by the space between the world of the physical and that of the reflection, are reminiscent of the past and the present treated as characters in the Rueckert lied about the lime twig, itself written in imitation of East Asian poetry. Their independent existence helps to distance the persona of these songs from the temporal reality of life and enables him to shed the skin of mortality. Structurally, the song is a subtle juxtaposition of slightly askew counterposes, the delicate instrumentation led by the flute lagging just a beat behind the tenor at the outset and eventually outpacing him by a similar interval of time at the conclusion. Again, Mr. Groves was impressively in character, note perfect and declaratively clear, although the presence of many microphones was a bit disturbing in such a small room, making evaluations somewhat suspect. Perhaps they were simply making a recording of the performance, not artificially enhancing the singers' heft and power.
The fourth Song of Beauty longs to stay in the world of the sensual, but the fifth, The Drunkard in Spring rejects that same world of beauty for the pleasures of intoxication (an ironic twist on Rueckert's Zen garden). Parenthetically, Mahler, who reorchestrated the symphonies of Schumann and "retouched" the great works of Beethoven, has no trouble changing the lines of Li-Po to suit his own dramatic needs.
Musically, Das Lied is really in two sections. The first five songs form a suite while the final movement, more than twice as long as any of the others, fills the role of the great Adagio from the third as a prolonged goodbye. In fact the song is called Der Abschied (The Farewell) and totally destroys the personality of the hero in favor of the experience around him (or her in the contralto version). The ending of the song (and the piece) sings that nature will go on long after the singer has departed. The final word Ewig (forever) is repeated many times, each time more quietly as it drifts into the void.
Here the ensemble turned oddly spotty, flubbing a few entrances, especially in the interlude that leads to the spectral finale. Ms. Cano performed yeoman service, although her somewhat phlegmatic approach left much of the drama at the door. What should have been their shining moment was more of a whimper, although overall this was a sensitive and well-crafted presentation. Neither soloist nor audience was breathless at the conclusion, suggesting that more could have been done, but in the interest of full disclosure, I have experienced Ewa Podles singing this part and she simply has spoiled me for other women.
Photo Credits (from top to bottom): Ruby Washington/The New York Times; Paul Goode