Mahler song-cycle caught between heaven and Earth at Ravinia

Sat Jul 11, 2009 at 2:57 pm

By Dennis Polkow

“In reality, you are about to hear the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler,” proclaimed conductor James Conlon as he was about to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Das Lied von der Erde (“Song of the Earth”) Friday night at Ravinia, the penultimate concert of a multi-year Mahler cycle that began when Conlon became the North Shore festival’s music director in 2005. 

Mahler indeed composed Das Lied after his mammoth Eighth Symphony and subtitled it Eine Symphonie but given that Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner had all died after writing a Ninth Symphony, he superstitiously refused to place that ominous number on the work and felt that he had somehow cheated fate as a result.  Ironically, Mahler would go on to write a Ninth, and even a Tenth Symphony, which he would not live to complete.  

To these ears, Das Lied has always been more of an orchestral song-cycle than a symphony, consisting as it does of six songs based on medieval Chinese poetry loosely translated into German from French and liberally paraphrased and sometimes expanded upon by Mahler himself. 

As such, its maximum impact is largely dependent upon the artistry of the two vocal soloists. Not only must they possess the singing ability and sheer power to cut through a full orchestra when needed, but each must have a wide arsenal of vocal coloring and dynamics that approximate the range of moods expressed in the songs. Like all great lieder artists, each needs to be a master storyteller. 

In that regard, Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton, making his CSO and Ravinia debuts, was stunning. From the work’s frantic opening, Skelton began swaying in rhythm to the music before exhibiting a mesmerizing and commanding cross-fertilization of drunken exultation with melancholy desolation, communicated with clarion sound.  This opening is a true tenor-killer, and I have never experienced it more compellingly rendered.       

Likewise, Skelton’s salute to youth had the introspection of one looking back fondly, even missing its energy, but too wise and experienced to go back and relive its cumbersome follies.  But his Der Trunkene im Frühling (“The Drunkard in Spring”) stole the evening with its joyous and reckless abandon of taking unbridled joy in life exploding around you while you still have time to appreciate it.  

By contrast, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, an experienced Mahler singer and alumna of Ravinia’s Steans Institute, was only able to penetrate the surface of her contributions.  She has wonderful high notes, to be sure, although there is often little restraint when she heads upward, which makes an awkward and unsatisfying contrast with her consistently quiet lower notes. 

DeYoung fared best in her depiction of beauty, but her portrayal of loneliness in autumn and especially the work’s sweeping finale, the thirty-minute Der Abschied (“The Farewell”), fell victim to DeYoung’s limited lower range and a failure to communicate the inner meaning of such profound poetry. 

Kudos, though, to Conlon and the CSO for providing such sterling accompaniment that faded gloriously into the existential nothingness that Mahler intended, and especially to principal oboist Eugene Izotov’s hauntingly ethereal lines.

The evening began with a salute to the Mendelssohn bicentennial with a lively yet sometimes slightly overdone performance of his Third Symphony, the Italian.               

 James Conlon completes his multi-year CSO Ravinia Mahler cycle at 5 p.m. Sunday, July 19, with a performance of the Mahler Ninth Symphony. 

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Mahler song-cycle caught between heaven and Earth at Ravinia”

  1. Posted Jul 13, 2009 at 7:43 pm by Todd Janus

    Too bad it will never be broadcast by WFMT since the CSO broadcasts are only from downtown concerts. I was there too and thought it was great.

  2. Posted Jul 24, 2009 at 6:43 pm by Allan Brain

    They really need to broadcast this or better yet, issue a recording. I saw all kinds of microphones around. And I thought DeYoung was very good as well. Definitely a great concert, surprisingly poor attendance though.

Leave a Comment