Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra Enchants With Tan Dun But Stumbles Over Mahler

SwedenSweden Tan Dun, Mahler:  Göteborgs Symfoniker (Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra), Zhang Meng (wind instruments), Fredrik Björlin, Roger Carlsson and Kenneth Franzén (percussion), Michael Weinius (tenor), Morten Frank Larsen (baritone), Kristjan Järvi (conductor), Gothenburg Concert Hall, 21.10.2011 (NS)

Tan Dun, Earth Concerto for stone and ceramic percussion with orchestra
Gustav Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra’s decision to couple the Swedish premiere of Tan Dun’s Earth Concerto (written in 2009) and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde was promising in many ways. Both pieces are inspired by ancient Chinese poetry, both invite contemplation and Tan Dun’s work was inspired by Mahler’s (so much so that Tan Dun inserts a Mahlerian episode full of lush orchestral sound in a piece otherwise driven by percussion). The concert was worth going to just to hear this fascinating work – which was just as well, because the performance of the Mahler was uneven.

The Earth Concerto has four soloists playing 99 Chinese stone and ceramic instruments, mainly percussion but including the sheng and xun wind instruments. The percussion provides the rhythmic structure to the work and with the wind instruments (beautifully played by Mr Zhang) evokes the atmosphere of Li Bai’s poetry. The orchestral playing is often percussive, with short, sharp chords and a wide palette of sounds from string glissando to synchronised breathing.

The first movement (based on Li Bai’s poem “Of Youth”) set the tone, with rhythmic music driven by the percussionists, who played their often complex parts accurately throughout the performance. In this movement the main musical interest came from the percussion, with its wide variation of rhythms and sounds, and the wind soloist’s didgeridoo-like sounds; the orchestra’s role was mainly to support the soloists with sudden chords. In the second movement (“The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery”) the orchestra had a larger role, producing thrilling sounds reminiscent of Stravinsky’s primitivism and bringing to life the despair of the poem. The third movement (“The Drunkard in Spring”) saw a combination of excellent percussion playing and a convincing orchestral performance. The audience’s enthusiastic applause was thoroughly deserved.

It seemed after the interval that the performance of Das Lied von der Erde had suffered from the effort required to rehearse the Earth Concerto. While Kristjan Järvi’s conducting of the Concerto had been on the ball throughout, he seemed unable to keep the Mahler from sprawling. The sense of forward movement that was always present in the first half seemed to evaporate.

To be fair, Das Lied von der Erde is a very challenging piece, particularly for the soloists. Tenor Michael Weinius had some trouble in the first movement, being overpowered by the orchestra in all except the quieter moments. However, he did improve in later movements; “Von der Jugend” saw him at his best. Morten Frank Larsen has a beautiful light baritone voice and his German was crystal clear, but he too suffered a little from balance problems with the orchestra.

Mr Frank Larsen was at his best in “Der Abschied”, the final movement. This movement also saw some of the finest orchestral playing, with the woodwind vividly recreating the atmosphere of the shadowy forest in which the poem is set. Unfortunately, Mr Järvi’s rubato meant that any sense of line disappeared; instead of one song with five verses the movement felt more like five songs with orchestral interludes. When the last movement eventually ended, the overwhelming feeling was one of relief, perhaps not what Mahler had intended.

Niklas Smith