Grant Park Music Festival, Chicago commemorates Gustav Mahler

July 12, 2011

by Salvatore Calomino, Opera Today

To commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra gave in early July two performances of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde featuring the vocal soloists Alexandra Petersamer and Christian Elsner.

The work by Mahler was preceded, fittingly, by the Musique funèbre of Witold Lutoslawski, which had originally been composed for the anniversary of Bartok’s death and first performed in 1958. In its performance of the latter work written for string orchestra the Grant Park Orchestra under Kalmar gave a seamless account of the score. The somber introduction for cellos is followed by the gradual introduction of other string groups. A foremost impression left by these performances is the sense of symmetry in Lutoslawski’s “memorial tribute” as the cello ensemble returns to close the piece in an audible mirror of its opening. The four parts of the work entitled Introduction, Metamorphoses, Apogee, Epilogue draw on varying sound palettes for individual and groups of sting players. After the cellos are joined by the remaining strings, tempos increase and allow for declarative statements performed forte. This technique used in the two middle segments of the piece is varied by sections played piano, where the basses used gentle bowing to touching effect. In much the same way, fragments of melodies were played by individual groups, the full melodies then growing into a perceptible unit as tempos accelerated forcefully. A lush, neo-Romantic transition formed the bridge to the conclusion, or Epilogue, as Kalmar led his players toward a dignified statement of tribute with the individual strings dissolving into the inexorable return of the cellos.

The performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde followed this memorial piece without intermission. In the first of the six vocal parts, “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” (“Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery”), Mr. Elsner sang with lyrical and dramatic force from the start, as he gave appropriate intonation to the word “klingen” (“resound”). In the delineation of the “Lied vom Kummer” (“song of care”) Elsner’s emotional line was matched by the distinctive solo for oboe. Decoration was taken here as marked with the tenor’s melisma sung on “Fülle” (“abundance”), so that the word as performed reflected its meaning. Starting at this point the English horn solo in this performance lent a complementary sense of melancholy to both the voice and recurrent notes of the oboe. The concept of eternity, which recurs memorably in the final part of Das Lied, is here broached, as the tenor contrasts duration and mortality in “Firmament” and “Der Mensch” (“the heavens,” “You, o mortal”). Here Elsner’s pitch was less distinctive, as the attack on “Mondschein” (“moonlight”) and “Gräbern” (“graves”) was sung with greater force than suitable.

The second song, “Der einsame im Herbst” (“The Solitary one in Autumn”), introduced the performance of Alexandra Petersamer. From the start, the security of the singer’s range assured poignant delivery of lines such as “Vom Reif bezogen stehen alle Gräser” (“The blades of grass stand covered with frost”). Here Petersamer’s voice rose from stirring low notes to a bright top with focus on “Gräser” and, with parallel approach at the close of the strophe, on “ausgestreut” (“scattered about”). When Petersamer began the penultimate strophe in this brief segment, she sang the line “Mein Herz ist müde” (“My heart is weary”) with the pitch toward flat as an illustration of this emotional state. In “Ich hab’ Erquickung not!” (“I need refreshment!”) she engaged in what approached a dialogue with the low strings. As a final statement of yearning “Sonne der Liebe” (“Sun of love”) was delivered by Petersamer with full and convincingly emotional declaration.

In the two vocal parts at the center of Das Lied both singers and orchestra responded to the challenges of tempo in their accomplished performances. In “Von der Jugend” (“On Youth”) Elsner showed skillful modulation as he wrapped the vocal line around accelerated playing. Just as Kalmar’s masterful direction eased the orchestra’s pace at “Wunderlich im Spiegelbilde” (“Wonderfully in the reflection”), the singer’s voice showed a matching deceleration, only to conclude this song by reversing the technique. In her medial song, “Von der Schönheit” (“On Beauty”), Petersamer was equally impressive as her voice imitated the “caressing gestures” of “Schmeichelkosen” as well as the sounds of youths riding their steeds through branches along the river’s bank. In her approach to the last strophe of this segment she used exquisite lyrical phrasing and piano shading to communicate the yearning of the fairest maiden looking after the youth as he galloped away. With tasteful decoration placed on “Sehnsucht” (“longing”) and “ihres Herzens” (“of her heart”) a secret melancholy brought the segment to its moving conclusion.

In his last selection, “Der Trunkene im Frühling” (“The drunkard in Spring”), Elsner contrasted the emotional opposites of toil and torment with the happy “cheerful day” (“lieben Tag”). After sorting through issues of volume in the initial strophe Elsner came into his own at the line “Mir ist als wie im Traum” (“It seems to me like a dream”). At the words “schwarzen Firmament (“dark heavens”) and “betrunken sein” (“remain drunk”) Elsner released powerful forte notes directly on pitch to emphasize his persona’s resolve.

As the final and longest of the six parts of Das Lied Petersamer sang “Der Abschied” (“Farewell”) with touching clarity of tone. After the orchestral opening during which oboe, English horn and flute hint at departure, Petersamer’s singing merged with the instrumental soloists to echo and to enhance their mood. Her pure, high notes on “nieder” (“downward”) and “Schatten” (“shadows”) emphasized the words’ true meanings by contrast of vocal line. The ghostly pitches applied to “Hinter den dunkeln Fichten!” (“Behind the dark pines!”) evoked an evening’s solitude in nature coupled with a desire for companionship. While delineating the atmosphere in the forest her lowest notes were fully audible as the orchestral texture mimicked the sounds of birds. At this point Petersamer’s diminuendo on “hocken still” (“crouch silently”) effectively capped the emotive setting in nature. As her declarations on beauty echoed earlier sentiments, an orchestral interlude extended the atmosphere with notable contributions from the woodwinds and low strings. Petersamer’s singing concluded the piece as the “Trunk des Abschieds” (“Cup of Farewell”) began the future thematic wandering of the departing friend. The singer’s elaborate, meaningful decoration executed on “einsam Herz” (“solitary heart”) illustrated along with the concluding intonations on the repeated “ewig” (“eternally”) that this was a performance of Das Lied von der Erde in which text and music are ideally joined, where poetry and song receive their due when performed with such significance.