Dallas — Friday night brought a unique, often moving, albeit somewhat flawed rendition of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde of 1909 to Meyerson Symphony Center, with conductor Fabio Luisi, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, and a reduced version of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra turning in awe-inspiring performances of this pinnacle of late romanticism.
Inspired by ancient Chinese poetry as filtered through the lens of late romanticism in the translation of Hans Bethge, Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”) presents an amalgamation of the classical symphony and the romantic-era song cycle, with heavy influence of the romantic tone poem and Wagner’s harmonic idiom and vocal demands. The Dallas Symphony had previously scheduled performances in Mahler’s original version for large orchestra, an option destroyed by the current pandemic; fortunately, an alternative version for chamber orchestra, begun by Mahler’s disciple Arnold Schoenberg in 1922 and completed by in 1980 by Rainer Riehn, provided a means for presenting the work with an orchestra of 22 musicians, comfortably spaced (with string players and percussionists masked) for reduced risk. As in all performances of the Dallas Symphony this fall, the audience was limited to a few dozen in a concert with no intermission.
One might well wonder if a reduced orchestration of Mahler’s famously lush symphonic style would undermine the effect; however, the leaner forces in many ways enhanced and clarified Mahler’s sound world, and, indeed, underlined the intimacy of the ideas presented in the text.
This was particularly the case under Luisi’s firmly controlled guidance of a superb group of musicians. The Schoenberg-Riehn version calls for one performer on each string part, but this performance wisely expanded that to six violinists, two violists, two cellists, and one bass. A string ensemble this small but with multiple players on each part calls for absolutely flawless intonation and matching of timbres among the players on each part, and this group of musicians met the challenge magnificently.
The work as a whole is cast in six movements, or “songs,” alternating between a tenor soloist and either a baritone or mezzo-soprano. Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton was an unfortunately disappointing link in the chain: he may have been suffering from the high-pollen count that frequently afflicts singers in these parts (but only, as we old-timers know, in fall, winter, spring, or summer), but he resorted to a tone quality that might mercifully be described as shouting, with some uncomfortable cracks in the vocal line. Skelton’s obviously intense physical approach in a role calling on the singer to alternately represent drunkenness, monsters, and world-weary resignation was at times intriguing, but never rescued the obvious vocal difficulties he was suffering.
Taking the mezzo-soprano role, Utah-born Mumford brought a gorgeously rich vocal quality and total command of Mahler’s considerable demands on the singer. The fourth movement, describing the glancing encounter of a young horseman and a maiden, glowed with delicate, subtle sensuality in Mumford’s collaboration with conductor Luisi, and the final movement, rich with autumnal world-weariness and serene resignation, created a breath-taking epilogue. Conductor Luisi had carefully etched and delineated every fine point throughout the score, all the while allowing the music and the soloists to hold the spotlight. In spite of a flawed tenor soloist, this listener and the 80 or so other music lovers in the room came away having experienced the profundity of a work that discovers serenity within the inherent darkness of life.