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'Dark Is Life and Death': NSO's Leaden 'Lied'

"Wenn der Kummer naht, Liegen wüst die Gärten der Seele,
Welkt hin und stirbt die Freude, der Gesang.
Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.

[When misery draws near, the gardens of the soul lie barren,
Joy withers and dies, and song.
Dark is life, and so is death.]

(Ruin of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de l'Assomption, Port-au-Prince, Haiti)
The concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra this week featured the return of Mahler's symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, for the first time since November 2003. That last performance, with Leonard Slatkin conducting tenor Donald Litaker and baritone Thomas Hampson, was reviewed by Friend of Ionarts Daniel Ginsberg, and it was more satisfying than this attempt under Principal Conductor Iván Fischer, at least as heard at the second performance last night. The piece is not performed all that often, partly because not only do you need an expert conductor with a palette of many colors and a profound understanding of the score: you also need two excellent singers who can sing with the subtlety of a Lied recital singer -- clear but not exaggerated diction, characterization without overemoting -- and occasionally wallop the room with a wall of sound.

Unfortunately, Fischer did not have all of those qualities in either of his vocalists. Really fine tenors for this kind of music are a rarity these days, and Stig Andersen, who appeared in the Royal Danish Opera's Ring cycle, sounded too diffuse, too swallowed to carry well in the room. As selected by Mahler, from the translations of translations of Chinese poems in Hans Bethge's Die chinesische Flöte, the tenor is cast as a sort of itinerant minstrel, singing of the pleasures of wine in the face of a life full of sorrows. What Klaus Florian Vogt's voice had was broad, lusty, even artless breadth, and Andersen seemed too contained, too small to be all that carried away in his drunkenness.
available at Amazon
Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, K. F. Vogt, C. Gerhaher, OS de Montréal, K. Nagano

(released on August 18, 2009)
Sony Classical 88697508212 | 61'28"
While Andersen's gestures seemed to indicate that he had the right interpretative idea, a rough-hewn swagger, he hid not have the vocal power to back it up. When he did try to force the sound larger, his voice came close to cracking, as in some of the high notes in Von der Jugend, although he had held enough back to sound strong on the heroic conclusion of Der Trunkene im Frühling. That his rhythm was not all that sure and his eyes were glued nervously to the score did not help either.

Fischer's mezzo, Christianne Stotijn, sang exactly as expected on the basis of her recording of Mahler's second symphony with Bernard Haitink (see my preview article): a relatively small voice, with some warmth that came across when there was not much orchestra to compete with, and a pleasing, dramatic stage presence. She brought evocative colors to the opening of Der Einsame im Herbst, for example, over the plaintive oboe solo and murmuring strings, and sang with a strikingly dramatic stillness (she is a good actress, more engaging because she sang from memory), steeped in sorrow, at the opening of Der Abschied and in the monologue of the second part ("Er stieg vom Pferd"). When a soaring line was needed, however, as at the end of Der Einsame im Herbst and in the wild, trampling horses section of Von der Schönheit, she was mostly covered by the orchestra.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Fischer, NSO mine the beauty in 'Das Lied von der Erde' (Washington Post, January 22)
The orchestra played well in the Mahler, sometimes exceedingly well, especially in the epic final song, Der Abschied, weighted heavily to the murky bass colors of Mahler's large orchestra, deployed so sparingly. The orchestral interlude between the two sections of this song was magnificent, but much of the rest of the piece, perhaps out of concern for the singers, seemed a little four-square in Fischer's hands, not so much in each particular song or section, but in how it did not flow throughout with easy fluidity. The opening work on the announced program, Mozart's 38th symphony (D major, K. 504, "Prague"), had a similar politeness about it: a solid earthiness to the Adagio introduction followed by a clearly etched Allegro, an Andante that seemed a little stolid and plodding, the third movement presto but not even near the edge of control. (Stage lights that kept flickering on and off above the orchestra, due to some sort of malfunction, may have been to blame for the distraction.)

The concert began, however, in quite a memorable way, with a speech by the Haitian Ambassador, Raymond Joseph, thanking the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center for devoting this concert and its proceeds to the cause of aid to help the victims of the earthquake in Haiti. In memory of the victims, Fischer led a hushed performance of the movement from Bach’s third orchestral suite, known as the Air on the G String. It began as a whisper, at a walking tempo that did not indulge in any soupy rubato, creating a moment of quietly rueful introspection. If you want to take part in the NSO's drive to raise money for this cause, you can still contribute through their Web site to the American Red Cross Haitian Relief Effort.

This concert, without the Bach work, will be repeated this evening (January 23, 8 pm) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.


jcd said...

I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with many of the individual points made in both your and Anne Midgette's reviews, but having really enjoyed the concert anyway. I also thought that both soloists in Das Lied von der Erde were underpowered (the tenor more so), and parts of the first few movements were conducted in start-stop fashion. However, I thought the finale of this piece was magnificent. Stotijn's delicate voice was a good fit for the farewell, and the orchestra's playing was among the best I've heard it do. That more than made up for the flaws in the previous parts.

jfl said...

Anyone who has ever heard Das Lied live where the tenor *didn't* sound underpowered, raise their hand...

Charles T. Downey said...

I know, I know: it's a bear of a piece, and the Concert Hall is a BIG room. Still, being able to hear more of the melodic line would have been good.

jfl said...

I've heard anything about this concert by now: From "It was not without flaws, but awesome" to "Don't kid yourself--it was even worse than Charles & Anne suggested". Ah, but to have been there...