The BPO brought Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with celebrated singers Dame Sarah Connolly and Stefan Vinke to Symphony Hall Friday. The second half would place great demands on the orchestra, but Zander mostly held it together.
The Schubert opened at an awkward tempo, pinioned between ferocious rapidity and indulging lyricism. Too slow to embody the entertaining frenzy of Thomas Dausgaard’s recording with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, and too fast to achieve the languid beauty of Abbado’s rendition with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the orchestra struggled to make a unique emotional argument, delivering an inoffensive take on one of the most ubiquitous works in the canon; a forgivable lack of focus prevailed in a program focused on Mahler.
Oboist Peggy Pearson, who proved a highlight throughout the night, matched beautifully with clarinetist Rane Moore for the primary theme of the first movement. The two polymerized to form a new, morose timbre of neither clarinet nor oboe, but an individual mixture of both that soared above the orchestra. The orchestra occasionally let phrases die prematurely, most blatantly at the medial caesura at the repeat of the exposition, but mostly proved convincing. The orchestra succeeded most during the climactic interludes in the development and the closing section of the recapitulation. Zander’s fiery dramatism unleashed the storm in these moments, and the bombasity allowed the orchestra to shine.
The second movement shared similar characteristics to the first, with the spotlight remaining on Pearson’s oboe. While Moore did well solo, Pearson’s oboe, now separated and compared to Moore’s clarinet in the secondary theme, stood above. For the tempi, Zander led with a more radical interpretation, maintaining a surprisingly brisk pace. This benefitted the Sturm und Drang closing theme but unfortunately rushed the lyrical secondary theme passed between oboe and clarinet. Following the third unaccompanied transition motif in the violins at the onset of the coda, the flute accidentally entered a few measures early. The noticeable, but quickly rectified mistake almost foreshadowed the Mahler to come by writing in a dissonant cluster tone idiomatic of late Romanticism in this otherwise early Romantic work.
After intermission, mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly, heroic tenor Stefan Vinke, and an expanded orchestra appeared for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. While 100 years newer than the Schubert, the Mahler contains surprising similarities. William Ritter, one of the first critics of Das Lied von der Erde, wrote of the song cycle, “the secret of such melodic freshness has been lost since Schubert.” In the way Schubert’s unfinished status stops the journey of music midway through before a return to the home key, Das Lied von der Erde refuses to reach the expected Mahlerian breakthrough, instead decomposing into nothingness.
The core of the song cycle hangs on syzygial polarities. In the face of death, the tenor turns to Dionysian revelry and the alto to Apollonian resignation. Vinke realized his role ideally, seemingly stumbling as if through drunken excitement, while still remaining firmly in control. The opening song, Das Trinkleid vom Jammer der Erde, presents a notoriously difficult challenge for singers, as the tenor has to exclaim at the top of his range against a raucous orchestra. Vinke made the part sound effortless, belting in full fury above the tuttis. Vinke and Zander took the repeating strophe of “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” at a slower pace, placing emphasis on the morbid transitory message as contradiction to the boisterous character of the rest of the song. Doing so helped highlight the song’s message of using wine as therapeutic nihilism in the face of the bitterness of death.
The French horns perhaps began with slightly too much excitement, as they chipped the opening perfect fourth interval, but the orchestra clearly enjoyed itself when allowed to unleash Mahlerian grandeur.
Pearson’s marvelous oboe lines opened Der Einsame im Herbst with vocal, dulcet tones that would only be surpassed Connolly. While Vinke also contributed remarkably, Connolly ultimately owned the night. She clearly gave everything, visibly fading as the will of the Apollonian singer gradually faded into the reality of death. Her resolved acceptance perfectly contrasted Vinke’s revelry in realizing the dramatic intention. In this song, Connolly sang moments of harmonic resolution with a gut-wrenching consolation. Her voice resolved with a ghostly quality, almost making the listener wish the resolution had never come for fear of its absolute finality. In certain quiet passages, the upper strings occasionally disagreed about intonation, but Connolly painted over those artifacts with artistry.
During Von der Schönheit, Connolly sang “sitzen sie” legato in the line “Zwischen Büschen und Blättern sitzen sie,” and in the recurring strophic lines on this melody. This interpretation recalls that of Christa Ludwig with Klemperer, as opposed to the more staccato versions of Julia Patzak with Walter or Violeta Urmana with Boulez. Von der Schönheit is the only of the three alto songs in Das Lied von der Erde that holds a more jovial tone, prompting the possibility for more lilting, staccato declamation. Connolly chose well, however, to maintain the line as legato, as doing so does not break the expected resignation. She focused on a cohesive story across all three songs, rather than underlining the most obvious musical phrase in each.
As the boys infiltrated the girls picking flowers, the trombones and tuba executed their jarring parts immaculately. Their brief but important part suggested a potential Mahlerian breakthrough before dissipating into nothingness.
Der Trunkene im Frühling marks a final return to the nihilistic mirth of the drunkard before the final farewell. Vinke sang the most heroically here, characterizing final macabre euphoric calls of defiance. On the line “Aus tiefstem Schauen lauscht’ ich auf,” which Richard Specht characterized as, “one of the sweetest and most moving inspirations of Mahlerian music,” the flute unfortunately overrode the voice with too shrill and piercing of a tone. Vinke delivered his final line of “Laßt mich betrunken sein!” with complete childlike abandonment and glee. Projecting with such character over the orchestra, he hauntingly chose drunkenness in the face of death.
In Der Abschied, Connolly reached an artistic zenith, as her farewell transcended into the night. On phrases such as “Ich harre sein zum letzten Lebewohl,” Connolly disappeared like a ghost, barely mouthing off the last word. Such emotional phrasing produced quite the chilling effect that helped prepare her final “Ewigs.” On “schwellen” in the line “Auf Wegen, die von weichem Grase schwellen,” Connolly did well to lean into the sharp four to create transcendental frisson. In Der Abschied, as in the second song, Pearson set the stage with the sorrowful primary theme. And her screeching and desperate rendition of the high chromatic motif proved essential to denying the breakthrough, and returning the affect back towards disintegration.
Connolly’s essential and resolute “Ewig’s” faded into the aether, briefly calming the Schopenhauerian endless will.