Cher Public

And three for Mahler

A poster outside Carnegie Hall proclaimed “Mahler Well Met” and to some degree it proved to be true. This season’s trio of concerts by the Met Orchestra took place within a single week: all were conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and each featured an important vocal work by Gustav Mahler. When the concerts were first announced they were all to have been conducted by James Levine but only Das Knaben Wunderhorn was included. Soon enough however Levine dropped out and Salonen was announced as his replacement and the programming began to change to focus on Mahler. 

But it’s not as if the composer is neglected in New York—just this week I received a brochure from Carnegie Hall outlining its 2017-18 season and seven of Mahler’s nine symphonies will be performed along with the Adagio of the unfinished Tenth Symphony. In addition Sir Simon Rattle brings the London Symphony Orchestra to Geffen Hall in 2018 to do the Ninth and Tenth (in the Deryck Cooke realization) along with Das Lied von der Erde, while Jaap van Zweden opens the New York Philharmonic season with the Fifth.

What made Salonen’s series so interesting? Although he included the First Symphony last Wednesday (along with its discarded “Blumine” movement on Tuesday evening) the focus was unusually on Mahler’s vocal works. Although Das Lied shows up with some regularity, I’d never heard Knaben Wunderhorn performed by two soloists with orchestra and Kindertotenlieder seems to be done far less often than either the Rückert Lieder or Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen.

The Met’s relationship with Mahler goes back a long while. The composer conducted many performances with the company from 1908-10 debuting in a new production of Tristan und Isolde with Olive Fremstad and leading the company premiere of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride (in German, of course) starring Emmy Destinn.

Since 1991 when Levine began giving concerts with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and on tour, works by Mahler have been featured prominently on the programs with Das Lied turning up five times before this most recent edition. As might be expected other vocal works have sometimes been featured too including unusual “castings” like Bryn Terfel singing Kindertotenlieder in 1995 or Dmitri Hvorostovsky doing the Wayfarer songs in 2004. Perhaps the oddest juxtaposition over the years has been Marilyn Horne, José van Dam and Renée Fleming each singing the Rückert Lieder with Levine and his band.

Although he was absent from the podium, Levine must bear the blame for the weakest performance this past week. For the orchestra’s first-ever (sort of) complete Knaben Wunderhorn he chose Susan Graham and Matthew Polenzani. Although Graham mentioned on a recent radio interview with Mary Jo Heath that she’s sung lots of Mahler during her career he’s not a composer that I would associate with her. And try as I might I couldn’t find another instance where a tenor was used for a performance of the Wunderhorn songs.

As expected Polenzani was scrupulously prepared and sang with fervor and commitment but much of the music was just too low for him particularly the opening “Der Schildwache Nachtlied.” Disappointingly just ten of the usual twelve songs were included; the two that were omitted (“Revelge” and “Der Tambourg’sell”) are the heaviest and most dramatic and presumably would have sounded even more out of place sung by a tenor. As the performance continued, Polenzani won me over by his sensitive performances particularly of the magnificent “Wo di schönen Tompeten blasen,” but he never fully overcame the handicap of being “miscast.”

Although she’s now in her mid-50s, Graham’s mezzo retains an enviable freshness yet she never seemed at ease in her five songs. One wondered how much rehearsal she had had when she ran off the rails in the florid conclusion of “Werhat des Liedlein erdacht?” or when she began the concluding comic “Lob des hohen Verstandes” at rhythmic odds with the orchestra. Her best moment was a gripping “Das irische Leben.”

Having grown up with the Christa Ludwig/Walter Berry and Janet Baker/Geraint Evans recordings of Knaben Wunderhorn I was initially surprised that none of the songs were done as duets, but I have learned that more recent scholarship suggests that they were not intended to be done by two singers and the two more up-to-date recordings I know, Magdalena Kozena/Christian Gerhaher and Anne Sofie von Otter/Thomas Quasthoff, eschew duets and include all twelve songs as solos.

Salonen’s fleet tempi perhaps threw Graham off but one wondered if he was just trying to get the whole thing over with as soon as possible. Despite their occasional collaborations, there was no discernable rapport or chemistry between Graham and Polenzani thus the entire enterprise lacked the sui generis wonder and mystery that can make the Knaben Wunderhorn collection so special.

Things improved markedly on Saturday afternoon when Salonen conducted Karen Cargill and Stuart Skelton in Das Lied von der Erde. I first heard Skelton as Erik in Der Fliegende Holländer in 2002 and was most impressed and then years passed and I was surprised to hear little about him.

I enjoyed his eventual Met debut as the Drum Major in Wozzeck but unfortunately had to miss his recent well-received Tristan there. For the tenor’s three fiendishly demanding songs in Das Lied he was in ringing, stentorian voice pouring out oceans of sound with seemingly little effort. Others in this music tend to shirk nuance but Skelton really cared about dynamic variation and putting across the text.

I know that many have written off the John Doyle production of Britten’s Peter Grimes but I for one would welcome its return to the Met if only for a chance to hear Skelton in the title role.

Having Jamie Barton’s sumptuous Fricka still ringing in my ears after Thursday evening’s Das Rheingold at the New York Philharmonic I was initially a bit let down by Cargill. In her first song she struck me as a bit underpowered and under-involved. Having enjoyed her in roles by Berlioz and Wagner at the Met, I remained hopeful. She improved steadily and in her second song serenely spun out the blissful beginning and ending of that piece while also doing justice to the hectic, demanding center section.

Her mezzo doesn’t have the enveloping warmth that one wants but it often glows with a mellow beauty that is very appealing. Her rapt concentration during the long “Abschied” proved very moving as the repeated “Ewig”s wafted seraphically over the gently undulating orchestra. Salonen appeared much more involved than he had during the Knaben Wunderhorn flop drawing his forces into incredible climaxes while also caressing the tenderer moments. If this performance didn’t efface my associations with the Bruno Walter (the Kathleen Ferrier/Julius Patzak version) or Otto Klemperer recordings I know so well, its wrenching intensity was immensely satisfying.

The troika concluded Tuesday evening with Anne Sofie von Otter performing Kindertotenlieder. This cycle of five songs remains my least favorite of the Mahler vocal-non choral works partly for its unrelieved gloom although most of his other pieces share a morose preoccupation. Although von Otter has sung only 43 performances (not counting a few galas) over her long Met career, this was her sixth appearance with the Met Orchestra including two different Das Lieds. By the way, she did not, as claimed in her bio in the program, make her debut in Der Rosenkavalier in 1990 but as Cherubino in 1988.

I fondly recall many indelible von Otter encounters—her aristocratic Octavian under Carlos Kleiber at the Met as well as her sterling Idamante and Sesto there. A surprisingly ferocious Ottavia in David McVicar’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea in Paris and the world’s longest “Scherza infida” from Handel’s Ariodante during a concert at Alice Tully Hall with Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre. Having just turned 62, von Otter remains a serious and noble artist but her voice has become considerably smaller and drier since I last heard her at Carnegie Hall in early 2014 in a mostly-Brahms recital. With a few economical gestures she entered intently into the dark world of Kindertotenlieder but there wasn’t much warmth or beauty to the singing until the final moments of the fifth song when the years fell away and the voice floated ravishingly into the hall. During the applause I wondered if I would ever heard her in person again.

Yes, these concerts contained works other than these three great Mahler vocal compositions—Wednesday’s program concluded with an increasingly involving Mahler First which blossomed into a spectacular climax. Before Das Lied Salonen led a pleasing “Rhenish” Symphony by Schumann but I couldn’t help wishing it had instead been the Second which features that gorgeous Adagio which prefigures the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth (a work which I was informed by the Carnegie program contains a sung movement!).

Tuesday’s concert included a vibrantly dramatic rendition of the spiky Sibelius violin concerto by Christian Tetzlaff, a veteran of many previous Met Orchestra events and concluded with a rapturous rendition of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony in which the orchestra whose playing all week had been really excellent reached even greater heights.

The Met Orchestra’s love affair with Mahler continues next season at Carnegie with Semyon Bychkov conducting the Fifth and Levine returning for the Fourth (which does have a vocal section–to be sung by Pretty Yende). While I sometimes find Mahler’s symphonies too long, diffuse and bombastic, I’ve always loved the songs so I am grateful to Salonen for programming these complex and enthralling pieces in close succession, two of which one rarely gets the opportunity to hear live.

  • Thanks for the wonderful review, Christopher. I often find myself singing along to the second movement of the Mahler Fifth – it’s so cantabile… :)

  • Porgy Amor

    Echoing kashania on the great review. It’s nice to read so much about a composer who usually does not figure in parterre box entries, for the obvious reason.

    I too am a big Von Otter fan, and I believe she is best appreciated now in lieder or small-group arrangements (e.g., the recent appearances with Brooklyn Rider), and in intimate spaces. Certainly the artistry is undimmed.

    • Porgy, perhaps you missed my upload of a live NY Philharmonic/Bernstein Mahler VIII. a few weeks ago, along with some bio material and an account of my trek out to his “composing hut” in the forests of Maiernigg am Wörthersee (where he wrote a bunch of his symphonies). As far as composers go, Mahler is one of my four deities. My Mixcloud site also includes Abbado leading “Das Lied von der Erde” with von Otter and Kaufmann.

      • Christian Ocier

        That Das Lied to me represents the pinnacle of Abbado’s contributions to the composer’s discography. While Kaufmann’s essaying of the tenor songs finds the ideal balance between lyricism and dramatic abandon (a synthesis of the Wunderlich and King styles if you will), I found myself enraptured by von Otter’s unique way of interpreting the even pieces. While Christa Ludwig and Baker brought a tonal opulence to their readings of the mezzo songs, von Otter appeared to unearth out of her vast tonal palette the ideal color for each phrase, all without sacrificing the dramatic unity of the lines. For the Abschied, there are two phrases that deserve special mention:
        “Die Welt schläft ein!”
        “Es wehet kühl im Schatten meiner Fichten.
        Ich stehe hier und harre meines Freundes;
        Ich harre sein zum letzten Lebewohl.”

        To me, no other singer who has recorded this great masterpiece has devastated me as with the way von Otter did during this performance. Her and Abbado’s is an apt partnership, and how fortunate we are that this performance was recorded even as late as it was during her career.

        • Thanks for this rave. I love Abbado’s Mahler, but haven’t heard his Das Lied. I’ll listen to Marianne’s upload.

          • Christian Ocier

            Kashania, the video is a must see. You could purchase a week pass at the Berlin site to see this particular das Lied and a whole slew of other great performances. Of note are Daniel Harding’s Mahler 6, Daniele Gatti’s Berg concert and a 20th century French masters concert, Rattle’s Daphnis et Chloe, and the new Sibelius cycle with Rattle.

            As much as I love the Klemperer recording for the remarkable vocalism of both soloists, there is something about the conductor’s choice of tempos that leaves me unmoved at the end. The singing is certainly heartfelt, and there are few singers who reach the artistic heights Ludwig was able to scale in the Abschied. However, Klemperer is just so inflexible with his concept of the music in the tenor songs and Von der Schonheit that I ultimately found Abbado’s art a bit more convincing. Ditto with Kubelik, Kmentt, Baker, and the BRSO, same with Haitink and the Concertgebouw in their famous studio recording. Another great Das Lied: Karajan with Kollo and Ludwig. Underappreciated since its inception, but in many ways the playing and the conducting reveals so many interesting textures in the score. Karajan was not a card-carrying Mahlerian, but his symphonic contributions (especially the 6th, the 9th, and his Das Lied) rank among some of the most compelling recordings of these symphonies. The adagios especially--so opulent and luxurious.

            • Christian Ocier

              Just be forewarned: I didn’t warm up to von Otter’s singing during my first listen, especially since the Ludwig and Baker versions were still very present in my mind. By 2011, her voice had started losing some of that luster from her early years, but not to the extent that it is now. Once you let go of those prejudices of what a Das Lied mezzo is supposed to deliver on a vocal level, and you listen to her special way of phrasing Bethge’s poetry, then I hope you will understand why I hold this particular Das Lied, and her artistry, in such high esteem.

              I have two earlier Das Lied’s from the early 2000’s with von Otter--one with Nagano, the other with Gardiner. There’s supposed to be a bootleg of the concert she had sung with Heppner and Levine from Carnegie Hall, but I can’t find that recording anywhere.

            • Christian Ocier

              Love this Erlkonig with Thielemann. She infuses Goethe’s poetry and the characters with so much vitality--I don’t think I’ve heard a more convincing contrast between the father and the son. This rendition, along with those by Schwarzkopf and Germaine Lubin, rank among my favorite performances of the song.

            • PCally

              Von Otter is a really amazing singer IMO. It’s pretty rare that someone not blessed with the most unique endowment (it’s a pretty small voice with a pretty limited range) can still manage to accomplish so much and sound so right in such an extraordinarily wide range of repertoire. And while the voice does seem have a lost some luster over the years she really does meet the demands of the music pretty unflinchingly even now. I LOVE her Ottavia above all others and that’s a role that has many many excellent interpreters. IMO none are as multifaceted and complete as hers, even if it’s probably a bit low for her at times.


            • Christian Ocier

              PCally, I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of her voice. For its limited scope, von Otter has really maximized its potential and turned in some truly definitive performances of many operatic roles--many Monteverdi, Handel operas, Debussy’s Melisande, Cherubino, Dorabella, Strauss’s Octavian and the Composer, an intelligent and intense Judith in Haitink’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and a remarkable Waltraute with Rattle (both in Berlin and Vienna). Her assumptions of baroque characters rank in the highest league, along with the likes of Lorraine Hunt. Certainly, no one has sung Ariodante better. As a lieder interpreter, I find her Brahms, Wolf, Mahler, Schubert, Zemlinsky, and Strauss so honest and compelling that she almost seems to disappear into the music’s tapestry (not a bad thing; when Jessye Norman sings Schubert, I still hear Norman; with von Otter, the music comes to life for me).

            • Daniel Swick

              No one on record has sung Ariodante better.

            • JR

              I’ve probably said before here, but I always start a von Otter performance thinking, the voice is nothing special. A few minutes later, her artistry wins me over and there’s no one better. She did a recital last season (I think) at the Frick that was out of this world: first half baroque, second half pop. Where that would turn icky in Fleming’s hands, that evening was marvelous.

            • Thanks, Christian. I like Karajan’s Mahler but haven’t heard that Das Lied. Interesting about Haitink. I usually find his work dull but have only heard a few things.

            • Christian Ocier

              You should listen to his Kerstmatinees Mahler performances. The 9th here is incredible, as are the 3rd, 5th, and the 7th. These Dutch recordings have not been available in the United States for some years now, but the Japanese division of Universal Classics has rereleased the symphonies as an import.


            • Interesting on how we all have different opinions of the same performers/performances. I was a member of the Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft for a few years and often discussed performances and recordings with one of the persons preparing the new critical editions (I attended the premiere of his cleansed version of the fifth which had several hundred corrections!). He pronounced HvK’s Mahler as “perverse,” citing his recording of the fifth in which the adagio is dragged out to about 11 minutes. Of the records retained of a few times when Mahler conducted it himself, he did it in an average of six minutes!

            • Christian Ocier

              I do love my Mahlerian adagios stretched out like taffy. :) Karajan’s slow movements aren’t even that slow compared to some of the more recent releases of a few symphonies. While he holds the distinction of having one of the longest Andante movements in the 6th symphony (gorgeous and heartfelt with the Berlin Philharmonic’s carpet of sound), many others (e.g. MTT, Bernstein Amsterdam, Chailly, Simon Rattle) have drawn these movements out with varying degrees of interpretive success. I suppose what attracts me to HvK’s Mahler is his aesthete philosophy as a musician and the varied orchestral color he is able to bring out of the Berlin Philharmonic. For instance, in a piece like Das Lied, his strings and woodwinds are able to summon the right kind of coloring to highlight the Oriental provenance of the work. In a way, this recording to me recalls the orchestral strength of his Turandot with DG. The singing may not fire a listener up with the same virility that can be had at a Nilsson-Corelli performance, but the intricate details of that score have never been revealed as clearly as in that recording.

              As for a long 5th Adagio (Abbado with the CSO is comparable with Karajan), Karajan doesn’t even top the list. That would probably be Bernard Haitink in his remake with the Berlin Philharmonic (almost 14 minutes long!!!). But you are right, performances that nowadays follow Mahler’s practices tend to truncate that Adagio to a standard of around 9 minutes.

            • Luvtennis

              I have a very hard time connecting to Klemperer’s Mahler. I also love Jessye and Vickers in Das Lied -- he said while ducking.

            • Christian Ocier

              I enjoy Boulez in some of the symphonies. His 3, 6, and 7 all worked remarkably well--particularly the 6th. I was expecting much more from the CSO 9th, but was let down by the fast pacing in the final movement.

              Have you heard Gielen’s live 7th with the BPO on Testament? Great performance!

              One conductor whose Mahler has impressed me as of late is Daniel Harding. His 6th with the BRSO is quite remarkable, as are other broadcasts of his performances with various orchestras. I recall one memorable performance of DLvdE with Goerne and Florian Vogt. I normally dislike the baritone version, but this one worked remarkably well for me. Apart from Harding, I’m also a fan of Rattle’s Mahler, especially his earlier Mahler with top bracket orchestras. His first performance with the BPO happened during the Karajan era in a performance of the 6th. His 7th from the 1995 Mahlerfeest is quite dynamic as well. And his 2nd during his last concert as the CBSO director. A must hear: his 9th from Berlin, as well as a DLvdE with von Otter and Skelton.

              I feel the same way that you do about Ludwig. I initially flocked to her singing due to the remarkable voice and musicianship, but I ultimately found myself gravitating towards other interpretations since her concept about characterization seemed so homogeneous. She is a compelling Dyer’s wife, and probably the best Ortrud (especially in the live Bohm from Vienna) as a total package (although I would probably go for Varnay when it comes to an ultimate representation of character), one of the best Waltraute’s and Brangane’s, but a bit wanting in Italian opera. Great Fidelio, but I like Gwyneth Jones and Helga Dernesch slightly better. It’s perhaps one of recorded history’s greatest voices, but if one were to rank a performance out of 10, hers would usually fall between 8.5 to 9. Incredible artist and singer, but not something that impresses in my mind as definitive.

            • Christian Ocier

              Another Mahlerian I’d recommend: Manfred Honeck.

            • PCally

              I also have lost a lot of love for Ludwig. My introduction to her was primarily through studio stuff and most of my favorite operas I was introduced to through recordings featuring her so I used to really love her. It’s a beautiful voice and the basic technique and instincts seems solid enough, but lately when listening to live stuff it just becomes more apparent to me how much she pushes, how sharp she is more often than not, how her rhythm and intonation are all over the place, and how her interpretations tend to be a bit blunt and one dimensional (she basically has to sing forte live to be heard over the orchestra so I don’t really get a sense of dynamic range and nuance that I do from her studio work). Her Ortrud has its moments but on the live recordings it just seems like she’s yelling and unlike, say, Waltraud Meier whose basic instrument is certainly not as fine in quality and whose voice was arguably not that big either, she doesn’t really seem to be able to compensate for vocal shortcomings with much artistry (this is just my opinion). Everything just seems very tense to me and so in a role like Fricka for example she lack a certain repose and demeanor I would associate with a goddess (Rita Gorr has that in spades for example and Hanna Schwarz, an exceptionally underrated singer IMO, can will her voice into creating). Also, she’s often held up as some sort of symbol of vocal longevity which I’ve never understood because there’s a pretty noticeable dip in freshness and quality by the time 1970 comes around and I think much of her work during this time (The Solti Kundry springs to mind) sounds pretty blowsy and matronly. The Judith is a performance I happen to love quite a bit however to this day and while she’s not my first choice for Mahler, I still think her recordings for Klemperer are very much worth listening to (but I’m a mostly HUGE fan of his)

              Christian Ocier, if you liked Von Otter as Judith, you might enjoy Seefried as well. It’s a very unconventional sound, way lighter than usual this role and admittedly her top notes are a straight up mess (she actually has IMO similar limitations that Von Otter has but can’t mask them as easily). But she sounds like a young girl whose fascination with Bluebeard transitions into something frightening in ways for more subtle than the average mezzo in this role. And her and DFD have extraordinary chemistry (it’s in german)

            • Christian Ocier

              I love Irmgard Seefried’s contributions to lieder, and she is a fine Mozart and Strauss singer (her composer in Ariadne is near definitive for sopranos who have sung the part). I should listen to that recording (you’re referring to the Kubelik right?).

              I think you may have hit the nail on the head regarding Ludwig’s limitations as an artist. The lack of a wide spectrum of coloration--it’s not the most immediately expressive instrument, and she seems to resort to less creative dynamic tricks to convey something that an artist like Waltraud Meier or von Otter can access with their specific technique. While her singing on recordings has established a high standard in terms of beautiful vocalism, there are many roles where vocalism is really all she can offer. One contemporary of hers who should have received more acclaim is Yvonne Minton, who, while having been recognized more during her prime, unfortunately received less PR simply because she wasn’t Christa Ludwig. IMO she was a superior Octavian. Ludwig’s dimensionality of characterization can often pale beside some of the more compelling stage animals of her generation. I am still thankful that she recorded much of her repertoire, but I am happier still that her other colleagues took their artistry just a bit further. Regarding her work in the 70s: have you heard her Eboli? Terribly misplaced in that role.

        • Armerjacquino

          I’d co-sign all the praise for Von Otter who I first saw as Dorabella thirty years ago. One tiny detail that shows what an artist she is: she has a couple of lines as Mrs Lovett in Bryn Terfel’s version of ‘Epiphany’ on his ‘Bad Boys’ album and she sings them in perfectly idiomatic MT style and with a London accent which is spot on, especially when compared to other PATTI more famous LUPONE interpreters of the part.

          • grimoaldo2

            Yes, she is great. I’m not a Mahler fan though, much more to my taste this wonderful excerpt from “La Vie Parisienne” with yodelingduct effects, conducted by the great Marc Minkowski-

            • Christian Ocier

              Love that video!

              Here is a more recent collaboration between herself and Minkowski in Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder.

            • PCally

              Would love to track down some recordings of one of the Wagner roles she sang.

            • Christian Ocier

              This performance also has a very distinguished first Norn from the late Maria Radner.


            • Christian Ocier

              She was also the second Norn in Haitink’s studio Gotterdammerung. Wish that she was the Waltraute there instead of Lipovsek.

            • PCally

              Ah but I do like lipovsek quite a bit (in general, I’m not familiar with that particular performance.)

            • Christian Ocier

              I do enjoy Lipovsek’s performances. She is a very musical and technically capable singer, blessed with remarkably athletic voice and is dramatically attuned to the text. Few mezzos during the 90s (apart from Hanna Schwarz and Runkel) were her equal as the Amme. Her Waltraute was very good, but that scene is also a lied-like narrative, and I haven’t always enjoyed her work in lieder. So a hypothetical von Otter Waltraute would have been fantastic.

            • Armerjacquino

              Love Lipovsek. I’m here for anyone who puts ‘Parto, Parto’ and ‘O Don Fatale’ in the same recital.

            • Luvtennis

              I saw her as Fricka. She was very effective despite the occasional nasality of her tone.

          • rhinestonecowgirl

            Of course she trained in London (Guildhall, I think) and with the wonderful Vera Rosza.

      • Porgy Amor

        Thank you, Marianne. I had, indeed, missed it. Fortunately, it’s as easy as clicking on a byline.

        Opera was really the last thing for me, in classical music. Sometimes when I have spent a lot of time with it, I like to go back to these other composers who did not write operas at all, or wrote one or more that added little/nothing to their reputations..

        • Luvtennis

          Same history for me. Sadly, Mahler is like a drug for me so I have to avoid his work lest my addiction return. It’s terrible!????????

  • rhinestonecowgirl

    I love Von Otter too. One of those singers who knows her limits, but is always venturing into stranger territory. Her Christmas album is one of the few I can stomach, Theatre des Champs Elysees have just announced their Winter programme, and there is a really tempting revival of that Olivier Py production of Carmelites in which she is Madame de Croissy alongside Koch, Gens, Petibon and Sabine Devieilhe. An intriguing concert performance of Samson et Dalila with Alagna and Marie-Nicole Lemieux next June in the same week as a concert Faust with Borras and Gens and a concert Cenerentola with Karine Deshayes.