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BPO Ineffable in Earth Song


Dame Sarah Connolly (Hilary Scott photo)

Benjamin Zander and troupe prevailed in their expressive accompaniment of mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly’s and tenor Stefan Vinke’s memorable interpretation of Mahler’s song-cycle-symphony masterpiece Das Lied von Der Erde. Closing its season with a double bill, the Boston Philharmonic began the concert with Schubert’s “Unfinished” Eighth Symphony.   

“Zander’s” Mahler certainly focused the evening. Bostonians last heard him lead the BPO in this demanding work in a 2004 program that included the Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony. Schubert proved a peculiar partner to the Taoist musings latent in Mahler’s Lied. What aesthetic could link the two Viennese?

Well, Bruckner adored Schubert’s lyricism, the effects of which can be heard in the former’s many symphonies, and Mahler studied with Bruckner in Vienna. A Wagnerian substrate also exists between those two, but for the purpose of the BPO’s concert, the heuristic focus lands on Schubert. What Bruckner achieved through harmony and formal musical structure Mahler did likewise in elevating the word-painting lyricism of Schubert’s Lieder cycles into the symphonic realm. Both strove for the ineffable but utilized different means of representation. Mahler’s œuvre testifies to this in its manifold employment of voices. Bruckner never used the human voice in his symphonic monuments of pure, abstract musical art and devout Roman Catholicism. As for Mahler, this orchestral Lied epitomizes his synthesis of song and symphony. Zander could have easily paired it alongside Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (“Songs of a Wayfarer”), but his choice of Schubert made a bold though indirect statement.

In Schubert 8, Zander departed from standard interpretations. He treated thematic material with a more Classical than Romantic approach to lyricism, reaching less for pathos. But perhaps he was right to let the melodic flow of Schubert’s style speak for itself rather than overselling it.

In moments, dynamics became blocks of sound rather than an organic phrasal climax. The exposition of the first movement repeated with more flexibility that in its first round, though the development provided some shocking surprises. Over-enthusiastic rumblings in the bass section left nowhere to go in the famous development crescendo, the result being a rather effete summit. Tempi would sometimes fluctuate from nowhere, without leading the listener through agogic sound sculpting. The second movement, Andante con moto, played in the same vein: con moto taken literally. A moving tempo seemed Zander’s objective rather than a wallowing nostalgia. Zander posited a Schubert in line with his arch-classicist Vpredecessors rather than a genitor of high Romanticism.  

Benjamin Zander and Stefan Vinke (Hilary Scott photo)

After the intermission, Das Lied began with a slightly gaffed horn entrance. The orchestra followed with a full declamation of the verve-driven motif; clearly this piece stood as the evening’s reason for being. Vinke soared throughout Das Trinkenlied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow), casting great spirit on the scene as the movement’s tumult conjured dualistic notions of existential strife: “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” (Dark is life, is death). Energy at the expense of balance defined this first episode; busy orchestration alongside full throttle dynamics covered solo violin and cello passages. Even Vinke’s hearty heldentenor struggled to achieve supremacy over the orchestra during the movement’s final climax.

After the thrill of the opening number, Connolly made her entrance in describing the forlorn mists of autumn: Der Einsame im Herbst. The orchestral introduction painted a sumptuous, opaque color among muted upper strings, solo oboe, and flute. The sensitive musicianship of all on stage shaped the hazy contours of this scene. Connolly expressed Hans Bethge’s text (Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), German translations based on the verses of Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai) with wistful vulnerability, setting a mood that would inevitably return in Der Abschied. “Sonne der Liebe willst du nie mehr scheinen…” (O Sun of Love, never again wilt though shine) expressed pure exaltation from both orchestra and mezzo-soprano. 

The faux-Chinese, pentatonic-inspired middle movements Von der Jugend (Of Youth) for tenor, Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty) for alto, and Der Trunkene im Fruhling (The Drunkard in Spring) for tenor provided lilting and joyous musings as intermezzi before the final plunge. Playful, and at moments rightfully raucous, the music conjured images of a traditional Chinese Dragon Dance. Over orchestral waddles, at times marred by strained intonation from the violins, Vinke’s voice wonderfully depicted the lusty Trinkenlied.    

Transcending words, the colossal closer, Der Abschied (The Farewell), powerfully transmuted the ineffable. Connolly carried it (and in many ways, the evening) with exquisite feeling, blending to perfection in moments of plaintive union with the orchestra, most notably the solo flute. Oft goes the notion, likely started by famous Mahlerian Leonard Bernstein, that tonality withers and dies at the hands of Mahler in the Ninth Symphony, and specifically here in Der Abschied. Mahler’s nearly over-ripe late Romanticism alongside the text made for numerous tender moments that spoke to many profound truths. The violin entrance at the utterance of “Ich sehne mich, O Freund, an deiner Seite” (I long, O friend, at thy side) evoked the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, famously known as a declaration of love to Mahler’s wife, Alma. The celesta and mandolin beckoned the cosmic denouement as Connolly caressed our senses to unresolved harmonic conclusion: “Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen! Ewig…Ewig…” (All, everywhere and ever, shines the blue horizon. Forever…Forever…).

Nicolas Sterner is a conductor, cellist, educator, and writer based in Cambridge, MA. Active as a freelancer and organizer of concerts, he is the founder and collaborative director of the Chromos Collaborative.  Most recently, his “Courtyard Concert” series with Chromos received public recognition by the Boston Globe, as part of their the Covid-19 pandemic piece “What we lost, what we found.” For more information, please visit Nicolas’ professional portfolio at

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