Mahler Cycle - ‘Das Lied Von Der Erde’

Adelaide Festival Centre. 28 Jul 2012

Mahler is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for me his music is remarkable, innovative, and deeply moving, especially the symphonies.  Bravo to the ASO for bringing us the full cycle of Mahler’s symphonies – a project that commenced in 2004 with Maestro Arvo Volmer’s appointment as the orchestra’s Chief Conductor and Music Director.  It has been a twelve year odyssey that fittingly concludes next year with Mahler’s 9th, his so called ‘Farewell’ Symphony.  But thankfully we don’t have to wait until next year for our next Mahler ‘fix’.  The ASO performs the 7th in a little over a week and I for one cannot wait.

It is said that the famous conductor Herbert von Karajan once stated that when one listens to Mahler, “you forget that time has passed”.  Although he was referring to the fifth symphony, I believe the same is true of the others and the ASO’s recent performance of Mahler’s song symphony Das Lied Von Der Erde was an intensely satisfying demonstration of Karajan’s observation.  The performance was transporting, and, as the closing verses of the sung text in the sixth movement suggest (yes, ‘sixth’), we find ourselves left drifting in “distant places [with] blue skies” at its conclusion.

Das Lied Von Der Erde was composed during 1908 and 1909.  It was written after the eighth symphony but Mahler did not number it as the ninth, which is a different composition altogether.  Mahler had in his mind that no composer of any stature since Beethoven had composed more than nine symphonies before passing away.  Leading up to the composition of Das Liede, Mahler had experienced the most wretched time of his life:  major health problems, the death of a child, and anti-Semitism.  After all that, if you believed in the so-call ‘curse of the ninth’, you too might not number the work as your ninth.

There are a number of striking features about Das Liede.  It is in six movements which is something rather unique, each movement centres on a separate song sung by a soloist based on Chinese texts that celebrate life and our physical existence. The duration of the last movement is as long as the preceding five and is longer than most other symphonies by anyone.   We were privileged to have Katarina Karneus (mezzo soprano) and Stuart Skelton (tenor) as soloists, and their performances were stellar.  Skelton was perfect for the ‘drinking’ songs – he is the consummate actor and underlined his expressive and powerful voice (which was almost overwhelmed at times in the first movement) with a highly entertaining and very physical performance.  Karneus was the mainstay of the show, and her performance of ‘The Farewell’ in the final movement was just sublime.  Transporting.  Volmer handled the difficult phrasing and time signatures with apparent ease, but I’m sure it was anything but.  Applause at the end seemed quite inadequate.

Yes, Mahler was the main event, but the orchestra also performed the very lyrical and melodic fifth symphony of Schubert.  It stood in stark contrast to Das Liede in terms of orchestration.  The orchestra for the Mahler is huge – the stage is full and imposing, almost menacing – but the Schubert demands no more than strings, a flute, two oboes, two bassoons and two horns.  There is no percussion, no brass, and no timpanis unlike his other symphonies.  I felt the orchestra was slightly overpowered by the strings, and the lightness of the piece did not always shine through with the ease that it should.  But, at its conclusion, the audience left for interval drinks humming the lilting melodies of the first movement as they steeled themselves for the onslaught of the Mahler.

Ah yes, Mahler is something else, but don’t take my word for it.  If you are a Mahler virgin, do something about it on August 11!

Kym Clayton

When: 28 Jul and 11 Aug
Where: Adelaide Festival Centre