On the 100th anniversary of the Munich world premiere of Das Lied von der Erde
There’s something very gratifying about celebrating the centenary of a world premiere—Gustav Mahler’s Lied von der Erde in this case—not by dipping deeper into the nostalgia trove and replicating the entire original program (that would have been Mahler’s Second Symphony) but by programming it with a world premiere of its own. The Munich Philharmonic, the orchestra that Bruno Walter conducted for the premiere of Mahler’s song-symphony, did just that, and accompanied the anniversary-piece with a commissioned work for orchestra by German composer and pianist Moritz Eggert. Technically it wasn’t a world premiere anymore on November 20th, the exact date of the anniversary, because the same program had already been performed twice on the previous Thursday and Friday (just as it would be performed a fourth time on Sunday, the 21st), but it probably never sounded better until that third performance under the Munich Philharmonic “Honorary Conductor” Zubin Mehta.
With “Pulse” for large orchestra, the name says it all. The work opens with a coy tap-tap on the bongos, dripping like an introductory faucet, before chirping violins chime in, turn from mildly dissonant to vaguely harmonious. Behind them, the brass in- and exhales behind them. There’s a slow, ever increasing and consequent slacking in tension and volume, a busy swirl of rhythmic unrest above that steady pulse as Eggert carefully constructs his enchanting piece one mighty block sound-bit at a time. The work has a colorful one-dimensionality to it, with a generally harmonious, pleasant sameness; so much that greatly enthusiastic relief spread among the many subscription ears that feared—from their perspective—‘much worse’. Eggert deserves the enthusiasm in the response not for going easy on them, but for leaping right across the ideological hurdle that—albeit ever diminishing—is still higher for composers in Germany than anywhere else in the world, except perhaps France. With repetition one of his main ingredients, the orchestral work had more in common with a Philip Glass score (“Fog of War”) than what any Darmstadt School composer might have produced. His studies with fellow pragmatists Wilhelm Killmayer and Oliver Knussen show!
For Mahler’s Lied von der Erde, Peter Seiffert and Thomas Hampson were engaged—casting worthy of such an occasion and also setting the anniversary apart from the Klemperer-premiere that used a mezzo soprano for the low part, setting a trend that would remain rarely challenged for decades to come. It seems pointless to ponder which version one prefers when it is so obviously the high voice’s part is troubling: Whenever the orchestra launches into Das Lied, and the tenor remains standing, my first instinct is to preemptively cringe and think “poor sod”. Mahler never had a chance to fine-tune the work, and the tenor songs so needs fixing. While mezzos and baritones bask in glory, tenors cruelly run aground, squeezed between the merciless orchestration and uncomfortably high notes.
All the more astonishing, then, that Peter Seiffert navigated his way very nicely through the score, never succumbing to the trickiest and most treacherous bits, remaining audible throughout, and beautiful, too. Even if effort and effect are still not in economic relations in the orchestral version of Das Lied, Seiffert was hugely impressive—as if he was a completely different singer since I had heard him earlier this year as Lohengrin. Thomas Hampson, with his mildly introverted, ever artful, deliberately crafted delicacy, nuance, and enunciation, did his part to ensure success, despite wayward moments in Von der Schönheit where the orchestra—responding with lively, playful manner to Mehta—also managed to drown him out.
For a curtain raiser Mehta chose Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture, and it was a sonorous appetizer, lightweight despite blustery exterior and perfectly enjoyable thanks to touches of calm delicacy and the considerable cohesion that comes with having practiced it in two public performances already.