A Transcendent Song of the Earth from Sasha Cooke and Simon O’Neill

United StatesUnited States Schubert, Mahler: Sasha Cooke (mezzo soprano), Simon O’Neill (tenor), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 6.4.2016. (HS)

Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B minor “Unfinished”

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

As local concert goers recognized early in the conductor’s tenure in the mid 1990s, the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas have a winning touch with Mahler. The musical world got it as the orchestra rolled out its complete set of Mahler recordings in the intervening years. So it’s no surprise that a concert focused on Das Lied von der Erde delivered the usual robustness, clarity, tonal coloring and wide range of ideas, glued together by Tilson Thomas’ ability to seamlessly shape a Mahler performance.

Heard Wednesday, Mahler’s hybrid song cycle-symphony made for an evening that ranks with any other I’ve experienced when this group turns to this composer. Tilson Thomas and the ensemble plumbed the depths of orchestral nuance, while giving full attention to the rhythmic shifts and accents that make the music so unsettling—and powerful. Tilson Thomas savored the score’s layers of complex undercurrents rather than focusing on its pentatonic chinoiserie.

The German translations of Chinese poetry focus on a sense of loss and the human spirit to overcome it, while the music explores the emotional battle involved. Mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke fused Mahler’s long melodies with riveting focus. Her Zen-like assuredness—a stillness at the center of her being that let the music flow with absolute mastery—stood in contrast with the tireless athleticism required of the tenor’s contributions.

In two of the songs, Mahler requires the male singer to navigate punishing passages high above the staff against the full cry of brass and woodwinds, and in the other, he must show a lilt, and dance through flowers. New Zealand-born Simon O’Neill, who has sung Siegmund, Parsifal and Lohengrin at the Royal Opera in London, managed to pierce the thick textures without losing a hard-edged precision in his sound and diction.

O’Neill brought a sense of abandon to the two drinking songs, which frame a series of five that constitute the first half. In the third song, “Von der Jugend” (“Of Youth”) at the center of this sequence, he was remarkably charming, given the vocal requirements for the others. Here his voice danced gaily, as opposed to the raucous blast of the other two.

In two of her songs, interspersed with the tenor’s, Cooke let the words and music unfurl with a sense of detachment. In poetic terms, the texts describe the solitude at the end of life (“Der Einsame in Herbst,” “The Solitary One in Autumn”), and a knowing acknowledgement of the ardor of young lovers in the fourth (“Von der Schönheit,” or “Beauty”).

But it was in the final movement, “Der Abschied” (“The Farewell,” which lasts as long as the first five combined), in which Cooke reached a transcendent level. Starting off with uncanny stillness, her richly textured voice shaped the wistful description of nature at sunset, only gradually rising to a broad climax. After the instrumental interlude that separates the movement’s two poems, the final minutes, describing a horseman riding home for the last time, played against the gravity of Mahler’s orchestral music with a sound that combined warmth, regret and timelessness with extraordinary resonance and precision. At the close, she created a sense of distance in the final fadeout of the repeated word “ewig” (“forever”) that left me breathless.

Tilson Thomas paced the first half “appetizer” for this feast, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, with unusually deliberate tempos. He seemed to savor the mystery and seriousness that stemmed from a slowish unfolding of the opening movement’s melodic and harmonic statements and their overlapping gestures in the development. It may not have been the most lyrical reading of this familiar music, but it brought out aspects not usually heard these days, a throwback to the gravitas of previous generations.

Harvey Steiman

This same program can be heard at Carnegie Hall in New York April 14, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., April 16. (Last week’s Copland and Schumann program will be repeated at Carnegie Hall on April 13 and New Jersey Performing Arts Center on April 15.)


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