Rarely Heard in Chicago – Mahler and Schoenberg with the CSO

United StatesUnited States  Mahler and Schoenberg: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Michelle De Young (mezzo soprano), Stuart Skelton (tenor), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Jonathan Nott (conductor), Symphony Center, Chicago, 3.3.2012 (JLZ)

Schoenberg: Piano Concerto, Op. 42
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde has been absent from the programming at Symphony Center since 1994 until this performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Originally to have been led by Pierre Boulez, the concerts were conducted by Jonathan Nott of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, making his CSO debut. The opening movement, “Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde” (“Drinking-Song of the Earth’s Sorrow”) had a welcome aggressiveness, with the orchestra giving full vent to the sonorities Mahler used to evoke the brevity of human existence. Yet in the text, the orchestra overshadowed tenor Stuart Skelton. Here the nuances in the orchestration play an important role in allowing the voice to be heard clearly. Yet the range of dynamic levels was narrow, with the tenor’s entrance – a shift to a lower volume notated in the score – hardly noticeable, and crescendos, decrescendos, and similar subtleties were rendered inconsistently, obscuring the voice here and there. To his credit, Skelton used his tone and pitch as effectively as possible to make himself heard, but he seemed to be fighting an uphill battle.

With the second movement, “Der Einsame in Herbst” (“The Lonesome One in Autumn”), Michelle De Young faced some similar challenges. The volume at the opening was louder than scored, which didn’t allow for the score’s implicit contrast. De Young was audible, and while her pitch was generally fine – especially her low notes – the uppermost part of the tessitura of this piece posed some problems. And even though the pitches were quite distinct, the diction in the lowest part of her range could have been more precise.

De Young gave a fine reading of her second song, “Von der Schönheit” (“About Beauty”), with the outer sections seeming especially effortless. In the middle section, De Young took the lead rhythmically, so that the text had the necessary clarity. Yet the accompaniment did not always follow the vocal line, with some passages in the outer section louder than necessary or, when soft, not always sounding fully. This is a subtlety that may be part of the hall, or perhaps this particular section of the lower balcony.

That aside, the overt gestures in the middle section of “Von der Schönheit” underscored the text appropriately, with pentatonic pitches in this bit of Orientalism done firmly, unequivocally. In terms of tone, the orchestra was effective in “Der Trunkene im Frühling,” with its text about drunkenness as a means of escaping the world’s realities. Skelton was particularly eloquent, allowing the text to speak for itself without resorting to actually portraying the drunkard depicted, as some have done.

Though well-played, the first half of “Der Abschied” (“Farewell”) lacked the yearning implicit in the text (reinforced with the initial marking “Schwer” – “Gravely” or “Weightily”). Here the tempo seemed somewhat quick, especially when it comes to savoring the words that set up the final section. Solo flautist Mathieu Dufour was exemplary accompanying the lines “Es wehet kühl im Schatten meiner Fichten,” and principal oboist Eugene Izotov had some nice moments earlier in the movement. Yet the physical gestures De Young used in conveying the resolution were unnecessary, although her voice was convincing in her delivery of the last strophes. In the final iteration of “ewig” (“forever”), De Young’s sound lingered, with Nott allowing sufficient silence before he dropped his arms.

While some programs do not pair Das Lied von der Erde with other works, the first half here included Arnold Schoenberg’s 1942 Piano Concerto. Soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave an animated reading, and he and the orchestra sounded as if they had played it often. A work from Schoenberg’s maturity, Aimard deployed affable tone and a clear-cut sense of structure, and the audience responded with enthusiasm to this rarely performed 20th-century masterwork.

James L. Zychowicz