Donald Runnicles Steps in for a Memorable Das Lied von der Erde


Schubert, Mahler: Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Paul Groves (tenor), Cleveland Orchestra / Donald Runnicles (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 9.2.2017. (MSJ)

Schubert – Symphony No.8 in B minor (‘Unfinished’)
Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde

As I peered over the balcony of Severance Hall at the intermission of this Cleveland Orchestra concert, smartphones lit up below like a reflection of a starry sky. Sometimes the long focus of classical music can seem far away from our world of electronic info-bursts. But just as the technological devices formed new constellations, the music on this program mirrored the world and ourselves, bursts of deep information much needed in turbulent times.

The concert was originally slated to have been led by Cleveland music director emeritus Christoph von Dohnányi, but the august conductor was advised by his physician not to travel, following a recent bout with illness. Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles kept Dohnányi’s program intact, but branded it with his own mastery.

Whether or not one agreed with them, Runnicles’ choices were all strong. He had the basses of the Cleveland Orchestra open Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony with a chilling tone, drained of any vibrato. But this wasn’t some “historically informed” mannerism, it was deployed to make this well-worn symphony connect emotionally, beyond any concepts of tradition. The conductor focused on classical unity, keeping the pulse of the two movements the same and restraining dynamics. Yet there was no skimming over the visionary void that opens up during the development section of the first movement. It struck a poised balance between the familiar world that Schubert was leaving behind, and the strange, new landscape with wider horizons that overwhelmed him – so much that he was never able to finish the work.

The Cleveland Orchestra is renowned for its classical poise, and the playing was pristine. Runnicles kept the winds prominent, never drowning them with washes of string sound or letting the volume rise to great heights. One could argue that the work needn’t be kept on quite so tight a leash – Schubert’s modest dynamics being more customary of his time than reflective of the visions he was beginning to perceive – but on its own terms, the performance was impeccable.

Just as Schubert struggled to find his bearings, as his world was torn apart by deteriorating health, Gustav Mahler went from seeming health to discovering that a major heart ailment could drop him at any time (and within five years, it did). It’s a quantum leap from Mahler’s public and fulsome Symphony No.8 to the stark loneliness of Das Lied von der Erde (‘The Song of the Earth’), a vocal setting of German versions of French translations of ancient Chinese poetry.

“In one stroke, I have lost everything I gained in terms of who I thought I was,” Mahler wrote his friend and disciple Bruno Walter, “and have to learn to walk again, like a newborn.” It was a world of heightened expression Mahler walked into, where the beauty of a blade of grass could cut like a knife.

In my years of concertgoing, I had heard the Cleveland Orchestra perform Das Lied twice, first in the late 1990s under Dohnányi, and again in the early 2000s with Vladimir Ashkenazy. Neither performance unlocked the full impact of the score: Dohnányi pulled the emotional punches with his tight grip, and Ashkenazy generalized it into a warm but soft-grained focus. Donald Runnicles would have none of that. He etched Mahler’s breathtaking vision sharply, treating it almost as an opera where instruments were characters that interacted with the vocal leads.k

That same attention to the woodwinds that benefited the Schubert became critically important to Runnicles’ dramatic concept of Das Lied. Without departing from what Mahler wrote, Runnicles nonetheless gave the instrumental soloists (winds and strings alike) the freedom to stand out and become part of a vital interplay with the singers. They played like their lives depended on it, which for the composer was the whole point.

‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ (‘The Drinking Song of Earthly Sorrow’) had plenty of power, but Runnicles showed his experience as an opera conductor, sculpting the orchestra’s dynamics so that tenor Paul Groves wasn’t swamped in a sea of sound. Freed from having to shout down the orchestra, Groves was able to explore the song’s characterization, bringing its mix of fatalism and sense-drenched vision to the fore. (One detail to please Mahler aficionados was the presence of an English horn with an extended low range, able to play the low B-flat in the score instead of the optional but odd-sounding B-natural.)

Groves was charming in “Von der Jugend” (“Of Youth”), walking a tightrope between tracing the Chinoiserie of the melodic line and soaring out over the orchestra. His last song, “Der Trunkene im Frühling” (“The Drunkard in Spring”), went even further, Groves pushing himself to the ecstatic edge, without ever losing his handsome tone.

Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung has often sung Mahler over the years, but her mastery has deepned as her voice has darkened. In ‘Der Einsame in Herbst’ (‘The Lonely One in Fall’) she explored the slow-winding chill, patiently and somberly, making her full-voice sunburst near the end all the more radiant. She showed she could have fun in ‘Von der Schönheit’ (‘Of Beauty’), coyly shaping phrases, yet still able to hang on for Runnicles’  stampede through the middle section. Finest of all, though, was ‘Der Abschied’ (‘The Farewell’), where DeYoung did not flinch from exploring the lengthening shadows of dusk, casting a spell as she went. All the usual concert hall sounds—shuffling programs, whispered conversations, the inevitable coughs—dwindled away to almost nothing as even the most reluctant concertgoers got caught up in the presence of artistic vision. When the text describes the singer’s friend, who dismounts from his horse to say his last goodbye before departing for unknown regions, one could almost see him, so intense was DeYoung’s involvement. She wasn’t the only one wiping her eyes when the music was done.

Truly a concert to remember, and another piece of evidence to build the case that Runnicles is one of today’s outstanding Mahler interpreters. It is a shame that an orchestra able to mirror Mahler’s vision with such breathtaking mastery is so rarely given the opportunity.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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  1. Elliot says:

    The first half of the concert played like Runnicles vs. Schubert, and the best man did not win. The performance had nothing in common with Schubert’s intention. Next time they bring in a substitute conductor, we’d be better served if he adjusted the program to something he is familiar with. Runnicles did just fine with operatic music that he understands. Please do not ask him back.

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