Das Lied von der Erde at Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at the Grant Park Music Festival: Grant Park Orchestra, Alexandra Petersamer (mezzo soprano), Christian Elsner (tenor), Carlos Kalmar (Artistic Director and Principal Conductor), Harris Theater, Chicago, 2.7.2011 (JLZ).

Lutosławski : Musique funêbre

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

One of the highlights of the 2011 season of the Grant Park Music Festival is the present weekend’s concerts: Witold Lutosławski’s Musique funêbre and Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The latter is often the only piece on a program, and when another work accompanies it, the choices are not always as satisfying as the Lutosławski, as valedictory a work as the Mahler. More importantly, both pieces received meticulous execution and outstanding interpretations.

Programmed infrequently, the Lutosławski deserves to be heard more often. Composed as a memorial at the tenth anniversary of the death of Bela Bartok, the piece is reminiscent of the Hungarian composer’s style. The arch form evokes some of Bartok’s familiar music, particularly his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Yet in the self-imposed restriction of composing for strings alone, Lutosławski also conveyed his own individual voice: details of the thematic material, twentieth-century counterpoint (in the center sections) and his signature dense sonorities, using of distinct voicings for expressive purposes. Those elements were always present in Carlos Kalmar’s clear, convincing performance. While the entire string orchestra played well, the cellos were notable, especially principal Walter Haman, given the solo passages.

The centerpiece of the program was Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, which Kalmar led with style and distinction. The large orchestra required was well rehearsed, with the sometimes shifting scoring of the instrumental passages deftly rendered. The extroverted gesture that opens the first song, Von Jammer der Erde (“Of the earth’s sorrow”), showed a good balance between strings and brass. If tenor Christian Elsner was at first difficult to hear in the opening tutti passages, he quickly compensated with his delivery. Here the difficult situation described is unmistakable through the use of the refrain “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” (“Dark is life, is death”). Elsner made this phrase resound with suitable gravity, matching Kalmar’s approach.

With the second song, Der Einsame im Herbst (“The solitary one in autumn”) mezzo soprano Alexandra Petersamer was outstanding from the start. In her delivery of the opening phrase, the descent from the high “F” was even and ringing, just as the next phrase was in the ascent from low “A.” The evenness of tone and solid pitch between registers is an important part of Petersamer’s technique, matched by her persuasive phrasing and expression. The performance had the sense of a liederabend.

This piece was followed by Elsner’s interpretation of Von der Jugend (“Of Youth”), and his ringing Heldentenor allowed him to give full voice both here and in the fifth song, Der Trunkene im Frühling (“The drunkard in spring”), never shying away from the range these pieces demand. At times, though, some of the passing notes and melismas were indistinct, with the first pitches of a figure stronger than the subsequent ones. (This might be a matter of balance.) And with Elsner, the final, ironic strophe made its full impact.

Of the remaining songs for mezzo soprano, Petersamer gave a powerful reading of Von der Schönheit (“Of Beauty”), in which she brought appropriate delicacy to the outer sections, and masterfully conveyed the drama and intensity of the middle, which shows Mahler’s orchestra in full voice as it suggests the text’s impetuous scene. Petersamer’s command and fine sense of Mahler’s style reached a peak in her performance of Der Abschied (“The Farewell”). Each phrase built upon the others to create a memorable performance.

During the orchestral interlude, Petersamer discreetly took her seat at the side of the stage, a gesture that reinforced the role Mahler gives the orchestra. The second part of Der Abschied was equally effective, with the singer drawing on the leave-taking sentiments implicit in the text. Here Petersamer allowed the emotion to build so that it received full expression in the repetitions of the word “ewig” (“forever”) with which the piece ends as it dissolves into an unresolved sonority.

Throughout the performance Kalmar demonstrated his command of this score, with fine control of the orchestra including not only the tight sonorities, but also the more extroverted passages. The woodwinds were notable for their fine ensemble, particularly the oboe and English horn in Der Abschied, and the strings made a reliable core. Yet it was Kalmar’s ability to bring this all together that made a difference, as the conductor brought forth the details of one of Mahler’s late masterpieces – and he deserves praise for engaging soloists such as Elsner and Petersamer.

Congratulations to the Grant Park Music Festival. I cannot think of a better tribute to the composer at the end of two years that commemorate the centenary of Mahler’s death and the sesquicentennial of his birth. It will be good to hear Kalmar in Mahler’s other scores, and also to find Petersamer performing this literature, which she does so well.

James L. Zychowicz