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.