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12 Jul 2011
Grant Park Music Festival, Chicago Commemorates Gustav Mahler
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 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
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.