Dallas — This weekend, concertgoers had a rare opportunity to hear a seldom-performed Mahler cantata, Das klagende lied, variously translated as “The Plaintive Song” or “Song of Lament.” Based primarily on a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, “The Singing Bone,” the three-part cantata tells the story of two knights, brothers, who seek the hand of the same queen. The knight who finds the red flower in the forest will earn the right to marry the queen. The “good brother” finds the flower, but falls asleep in the forest, leaving the flower unattended. The “bad brother” happens upon his brother, takes the flower, and kills his sibling. Wedding plans between the queen and the bad brother commence.
Meanwhile, a minstrel finds the dead brother’s bone, carves a flute out of it, and begins to play. The dead brother’s voice emerges from the flute, accusing his brother. The minstrel goes to the castle, outs the bad brother, and chaos ensues: the queen dies, the castle collapses to the ground, and the wedding guests run for it.
Mahler began work on this piece when he was in his late teens, but it was not performed in its original version during Mahler’s lifetime. After Mahler revised the cantata extensively, he conducted its first performance 20 years after he initially completed it. Little wonder that it’s rarely performed, because this is spectacle on a large scale even for Mahler. Das klagende lied is a major undertaking; with six vocal soloists, six harps, an off-stage band, 10 trumpets, and a full chorus, the stage and choir loft of the Meyerson were packed. The audience was packed, too—although there were some empty seats, perhaps from no-shows, the concert had been all but sold out for weeks, with the handful of remaining seats selling for nearly $400 apiece on the Meyerson’s website.
The folks who were able to snag tickets for one of the two performances were treated to an exceptional musical experience. Although Das klagende lied clocks in at around 70 minutes, never has an hour’s worth of music flown by so quickly. Partly, this is because there was so much going on all the time. Partly, it is because the music and the performance were both utterly compelling. Jaap Van Zweden is a brilliant interpreter of Mahler. Although it’s easy for details to get lost when there are hundreds of personnel all playing and singing an unfamiliar work, the great majority of the time Van Zweden’s characteristic meticulousness was up to the considerable task. Joshua Habermann skillfully prepared the Dallas Symphony Chorus, too— the very few moments of vocal fuzziness were notable in part because they were so few. There were a few tentative entries in the winds and brass, but in general, crispness and precision reigned both among the chorus and the orchestra.
Of the vocal soloists, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung brought her characteristic chocolaty tone to her role, while the young soprano, Michèle Bréant, provided ethereal high notes and a lilting tone to her role as the voice of the flute. Sydney Frodsham, the young alto, was equally exceptional. Even in her lowest register, this teenager’s voice projected over the orchestra impressively well.
While the Mahler was definitely the star of the show, the very brief first half consisted of Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, a work on a completely different scale than the Mahler. Scored for strings, harp, piano, and solo clarinet, this concerto was written for Benny Goodman. Those are big shoes to fill, but Dallas Symphony Orchestra Principal Clarinet Gregory Raden filled them effectively with his technically precise and musically engaging performance. He brought the requisite jazzy fun to his interpretation, but also proved himself a master of phrasing and tone. It was splendid to see and hear Raden at the front of the orchestra in the role of soloist for a change.
What an evening.
These were the first performances by the Dallas Symphony of the original, three-part version of Das klagende lied. As the last notes subsided, I wondered whether I would ever hear this extraordinary spectacle again in a live performance. If so, I doubt the performance will be as remarkable as the one at the Meyerson Friday evening.