Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

BSO, Levine: Harbison, Symphony No. 5, Mahler, Das Lied Von Der Erde, Symphony Hall

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Mahler's Source, Hans Bethge, Die Chinesische Flöte, Title Page
Mahler's Source, Hans Bethge, Die Chinesische Flöte, Title Page

Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine conducting
Symphony Hall, Friday, April 18, 8 pm

John Harbison, Symphony No. 5 (2008), on texts of Czesław Miłosz, Louise Glück, and Rainer Maria Rilke (BSO 125th Anniversary Commission/World Premiere)
I. Con Fuoco (Milosz, “Orpheus And Eurydice”)—
II. Andante Cantabile (Milosz)—
III. Grave (Louise Glück, “Relic”)—
IV. Lento (Rilke, Sonnets To Orpheus Ii, 13)

Kate Lindsey, Mezzo-Soprano
Nathan Gunn, Baritone

Gustav Mahler, Das Lied Von Der Erde
(after Hans Bethge’s “The Chinese Flute”)
I. Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde Li-Tai-Po [701–762])
II. Der Einsame im Herbst (Tschang-Tsi [ca. 765–ca. 830])
III. Von der Jugend (Li-Tai-Po)
IV. Von der Schönheit (Li-Tai-Po)
V. Der Trunkene im Frühling (Li-Tai-Po)
VI. Der Abschied (Mong-Kao-Yen [689/691–740] und Wang-Wei [698–761])

Anne Sofie Von Otter, Mezzo-Soprano

Ben Heppner, tenor, replacing Johan Botha, who was ill.

[N.B. The Boston Chamber Music Society will offer a performance of a Das Lied von der Erde in Schoenberg’s arrangement for chamber ensemble, Sunday, May 17, 7.30 p.m. at Sanders Theater in Cambridge.]

As in November, James Levine has chosen to pair a work of Mahler with the premiere of a commissioned work, this time, not Elliot Carter’s brief, dense, but deceptively limpid Horn Concerto, but an ambitious symphony for mezzo-soprano, baritone and massive orchestra by John Harbison. It was only after Harbison had begun to make sketches that Maestro Levine, exercising his substantial gifts as a patron of new music, suggested that voices would be a welcome addition. The composer responded by taking up works by three poets who have been particularly highly regarded in recent years, the late Czesław Miłosz, Louise Glück, and, as the classic guest, Rainer Maria Rilke. These texts extend throughout the four movements like wall-to-wall carpeting, and one might get the impression that they had come to dominate the symphony, if its orchestral foundations and symphonic structure were not as strong as they are. The result is a work which attempts to do justice to two objectives: the expressive setting of narrative and lyrical verse and a fully-realized symphonic work. One might think that such a duality might prove a recipe for disaster, but in Harbison’s intelligent and experienced hands, the result is a double, if still somewhat divided, success.

Mr. Harbison’s Fifth Symphony is even more deeply rooted in the circumstances of its premiere than it might seem. He first heard the Boston Symphony many years ago under Charles Munch and has cherished an impression of its sound ever since. Moreover he has written several works on commission for the BSO in the past, so that there is a pervasive familiarity behind his approach to orchestral sonorities, which range from the full brilliance and weight of the BSO’s orchestral tutti to delicate solos.

The first two movements are devoted to Miłosz’s extended retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which alternates between severe, but sensitive imagery and a surreal, Alphaville-like vision of the underworld. Harbison’s treatment attended to both. Following Miłosz’s modernizing bent, Harbison gave Orpheus’ lyre the voice of a modern electric guitar, a plausible instrumental equivalent, but one which raised a little mild laughter among the audience. The poem unfolds as a flowing narration, occasionally interrupted by orchestral passages, of impressive force and foreward thrust. The third movement is a lyrical treatment of Louise Glück’s poem, “Relic,” in which she reflects on her divorce in a valediction summoning mourning, laced with recollections of Orpheus. The fourth movement is a setting of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, II,13, in which mezzo-soprano and baritone follow each other in close canon. The movement was expressive, but also projected a certain intellectual doggedness. Perhaps it would have been wiser to work from the original German, rather than Stephen Mitchell’s dryish translation. (Harbison’s own, which he quotes in his note, is more affecting. It isn’t easy to translate Rilke into English. Suddenly all our Latin roots sound hard.) In the program notes we learn that Harbison originally wrote the first two movements as the complete symphony, but he felt something lacking and added the final two movements, which, it must be said, convince one that the theme has been treated exhaustively.

Maestro Levine and the BSO represented the symphony’s instrumental aspect most brilliantly, confirming the notion that about the best thing a composer could dream of in this day and age would be to have his or her work premiered by them. The two young soloists, Kate Lindsey (who sings Ascanius in Les Troyens, Part II, both in Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood) and Nathan Gunn(who will be singing Lancelot in a semi-staged performance of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot with the New York Philharmonic later this coming weekend and will star in the world premiere of Peter Eötvös’ setting of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ short story, “Love and Other Demons,” at Glyndebourne) were magnificent. Mr. Gunn’s strong but flexible dark baritone was capable of an extensive variety of tone and inflection, perfect diction, and a sense of narrative urgency in his delivery of Miłosz’s poem, which is essentially an extended dramatic monologue. His power of delivery gave him impressive control of the forward drive of of the first two movements. Ms. Lindsey’s lush, but disciplined voice was deeply expressive in her parts, which were more lyrical. The performance was a triumph for all concerned, but especially for these two remarkable singers.

I have not forgotten a brilliant Carnegie Hall performance of Das Lied von der Erde of 1999, in which Ben Heppner and Anne Sofie von Otter sang with the Met Orchestra under Mr. Levine’s direction. The Boston performance, as far as the circumstances permitted, went even further in exploring the work’s complex, shifting moods and colors. As fine as the Met Orchestra was on that occasion, the Boston performance proved yet another reminder that the BSO is now at the very top of its form, and the execution of the orchestral part was a wonder in itself, from the pungent, constantly varied tutti to solo passages, especially on the flute, oboe, English horn, and clarinet, of matchless expressiveness and beauty. (Flautist Elizabeth Rowe, oboist John Ferrillo, English horn Robert Sheena, clarinettist William R. Hudgins all received appropriately warm recognition. No one can say that the Friday audience at Symphony don’t listen or understand what they’re listening to.) In any case Levine elicited orchestral playing which was both impeccable in balance and timbre, structurally focused, and surging with energy. Levine truly excels at producing Mozartean nuance in Gargantuan scores.

Ben Heppner deserves our gratitude and admiration for appearing so shortly after the serious illness which made him unable to sing in all but one of the Tristan performances at the Met this spring, replacing and ailing Johan Botha. It was clear enough that Mr. Heppner had not entirely recovered; his delivery was somewhat cautious, even occasionally stiff, and his top was constricted and lacking in its usual color; but his affection for Mahler’s music and his deep understanding of the score was apparent as every moment—a situation far preferable to his performance in January’s Dream of Gerontius, when he was in perfect voice, but seemed distanced, even disaffected from his role. Anne Sofie Von Otter showed a similar involvement with the score, and her phrasing and dynamics were impressively flexible. Her voice, brighter than some mezzos who sing Das Lied, was beautiful throughout, most memorably in certain pianissimi. Her ability to project the vulnerability of a soul who must face inevitable departure from the pleasures of life was most effective. However, there was a hint of  staginess in her manner, a sense of a star turn being done, which hindered this listener, at least, from total involvement.

Or perhaps I had simply overdosed on words. After following the dense texts of the Harbison symphony, unrelieved by the repetitions, considered old-fashioned today, which, as late as Mahler’s time, aerated set texts and made them more supple for musical adaptation. I also followed the familiar words of Das Lied. It is worth remembering that Hans Betge’s original poems, free versions of French translations from the Chinese, were immensely popular in their time, selling enough copies to make even Ms. Glück envious. However, it was not possible to overlook the fact that this concert was fraught with words. No one would notice it in the course of a Wagner performance, but a stage work of that sort, being composed for that purpose, is different. Both the Harbison and the Mahler would have been heard to better effect, I believe, with purely instrumental companions.

It is especially interesting that this excellent performance should coincide withPristine Classical’s reissue of two classic recordings of Das Lied, both with the Vienna Philharmonic under Bruno Walter, who conducted its premiere in 1911. The first recording, from 1936, was an early—successful— attempt to record a live performance, organized in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the premiere, with the great contralto, Kerstin Thorborg, whose voice was darker than Anne Sofie von Otter’s, and Charles Kullman, the American tenor, whose Tamino, Tannhaüser, and Parsifal were much admired—in other words a voice more like Botha’s than Heppner’s. The second is the even more famous 1952 Decca recording with Kathleen Ferrier and Julius Patzak, a rich contralto paired with an even lighter tenor. This has been considered by many to be the greatest performance ever.

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