Arts & Events

New: A Profoundly Moving DAS LIED VON DER ERDE

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Wednesday April 13, 2016 - 12:31:00 PM

“A symphony in songs” is how Gustave Mahler once described what would have been his ninth symphony, a numerical designation he superstitiously avoided, calling this work Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). In 1907-8, Mahler had only recently seen his four-and-a-half year-old daughter die, and he himself had been diagnosed with a severe heart condition. Thus, he turned to a collection of German translations of 8th century Chinese poems, all dealing with earthly pleasures mingled with the melancholy of human mortality. Mahler chose six of these poems and set them to music, summoning all he had learned in composing his previous symphonies and song-cycles. Thus, Das Lied von der Erde achieves an almost miraculous condensation of Mahler’s unique musical sensibility, his sardonic laughter in the face of emotional pain and loneliness. Alas, Mahler did not live to hear this work; it premiered in Munich under Bruno Walter on November 20, 1911, six months after Mahler’s death. 

Under the lead of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony presented four performances of Das Lied von der Erde, April 6-10, at Davies Hall. Singers for these performances were mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and tenor Simon O’Neill, who alternate in singing the work’s six songs. The opening song, Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow), was sung by New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill, who was making his San Francisco debut in these performances. Mahler’s writing for this song is very difficult, for it is set at the high limits of a tenor’s voice, almost as if it were sung in falsetto as in Peking opera. O’Neill handled this difficult music quite masterfully. Based on a poem by Li T’ai-po, an 8th century poet born in Szechwan, this song urges us to drink plenty of wine in order to endure the “rotten trifles” of this earth during our short stay here. A ghostly vision of savage ferocity is that of an ape sitting amidst the tombstones in a graveyard, set to frenzied music by Mahler. A repeated refrain, Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod (Dark is life, as is death, is frequently repeated, each time on a higher pitch than before. “What do you think,” Mahler asked his friend Bruno Walter after the latter had read the score of this opening song. “Is it bearable? After hearing this, won’t people want to do away with themselves?” 

The second song, Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely Man in Autumn), based on a poem by Chang Tsi, lowers the temperature after the ferocious opening song, as muted violins offer a soft background against which the oboe sets forth a wispy, plaintive song. Sung here by Sasha Cooke, this song was a model of restraint until the moment when the singer launches an impassioned plea to the Sonne der Liebe (The Sun of Love), asking “Will you never shine again and softly dry my bitter tears?” The third song, Von der Jugend (Of Youth), set to a poem by Li T’ai-po, offers Mahler’s greatest use of the pentatonic scale and Faux-Asian coloration, including the use of a triangle. Here the composer evokes the shimmering musical image of reflections on the surface of a garden pond where an arched bridge leads to an island on which stands a pavilion where friends sit drinking and talking. Yet the image is a mirrored, inverted one, suggesting, perhaps, that beneath the surface of this civilized setting lies a hint of human mortality. It was beautifully sung here by Simon O’Neill. 

The fourth song, Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty), again set to a poem of Li T’ai-po, paints a musical picture of lovely young girls picking flowers at the water’s edge, then casting yearning eyes at the handsome young men who ride by on horseback. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke lent her multi-colored tonality to this lovely yet evanescent song. Next came Simon O’Neill singing Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring). This song, yet again by Li T’ai-po, praises wine as a welcome escape from the woes of life. In drunken bliss, the singer hears a bird chirping away, and a violin and flute evoke this birdsong. “Is it all a dream?” asks the singer. “Who cares? Let me be drunk.” 

Der Abschied (The Farewell), the work’s sixth and final song, is almost as long as all the other songs combined. It is set to music from two poems by different 8th century authors, Mong Kao-Jen and Wang Wei, who, as friends, addressed their poems to one another. Der Abschied opens with a deep tolling above which we hear a plaintive oboe. Suddenly, the singer, here Sasha Cooke, exclaims, O sieh! Wie eine Silberbarke schwebt/Der Mond am blauen Himmelsee herauf (Oh look! Like a ship of silver the moon floats in heaven’s blue lake. In this lovely outburst, singer, clarinets and cellos have almost the exact same melody simultaneously. The singer’s personal feelings become more impassioned when addressing the absent friend, wishing they could spend this lovely twilight together. Here Mahler introduces a mandolin to evoke the singer’s lute.  

There then intervenes an Orchestral Interlude between the two inter-related poems. This is an inspired funeral march, perhaps the finest of many Mahler composed. The fact that it is a funeral march once again suggests that humans are mortal and death awaits us. Then begins the final song’s second poem, which recounts a leave-taking between friends. But this is no simple farewell. Rather, it has all the suggestiveness of a final leave-taking, as one friend speaks of all the misfortunes he has undergone in this life. Now, he says, he intends to wander in the mountains until his appointed hour. He will never stray from his proper homeland. Here Sasha Cooke’s voice took on an almost otherworldly sheen as she sang of everlasting Spring, where everywhere and forever the earth is green and the skies are blue and bright. “Ewig … ewig …” she sings, repeating “Forever” over and over as trumpets softly echo her invocation of eternity over a soft melody of mandolin, harps, and a celesta. This ending to Das Lied von der Erde always brings tears to my eyes; and it strangely resonates for me with the final voice-over words of Jean-Luc Godard’s film Pierrot le fou, as the camera pans over the Mediterranean Sea blending on an indiscernible horizon-line with the sky – Elle est retrouvée. Quoi? L’éternité. Non. C’est la mer allée avec le soleil. (It is rediscovered. What? Eternity. No. It’s the sea gone off with the sun.) 

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde was preceded on this San Francisco Symphony program by a sensitive reading of Franz Schubert’s Symphony in B minor, known as the “Unfinished.” Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas opted for generally slow tempos which highlighted the softer passages, while he also brought out the dynamics of Schubert’s writing by emphasizing the contrasts between the soft and slow passages and those that rang forth with more force and energy. It was an inspired reading of this great symphony.