A semi-staged version of Das Klagende Lied probably did for most listeners what it did for me: it made me curious. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT for San Francisco initiates) is highly considered as a Mahler expert, having recorded all the symphonic works, including young Mahler’s first daring tone poem, the one-hour cantata Das Klagende Lied (best
translated as “Song of lamentation and accusation”) that he composed in 1880, at age twenty, writing the piece without any chance of hearing it performed.
The program started with two other short pieces, Blumine (a piece of sweetish fluff that Mahler eliminated from Symphony
#1) and the gorgeous Songs of a Wayfarer (composed four years after the cantata), beautifully performed by mezzo Sasha Cooke.
I didn’t know Das Klagende Lied. Most classical music fans probably don’t know it either as it is only rarely performed
and therefore comes as a big surprise. I listened beforehand to a number of recordings, from conductor Riccardo Chailly (with the great Brigitte Fassbaender) to Pierre Boulez;
some playing the original 3-part version, like Vladimir Jurowski, who uses a boy soprano to sing the flute’s laments); others (Simon Rattle) preferring the truncated
two-part version that Mahler revised almost a decade later. Tilson Thomas luckily chose the complete, original version with soloists Joelle Harvey, Sasha Cooke, Michael König,
Brian Mulligan and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The power of this piece of writing, both textual and musical, was extraordinary. Unfortunately, the semi-staging with the
four singers, four dancers, two stage kids and video projections, directed by James Darrah (with MTT’s input), did not add more than a distracting puzzle.
Lied - Joelle Harvey
A Grim Tale
Young Mahler, in good Wagnerian manner, wrote his own text. He “composed” the story from elements of a famous German
fairy tale that exists in two versions: a brief, factual and very grim eponymous story by the Brothers Grimm, and a flowery
version by Bechstein, called “The Singing Bone.” In both tales, an innocent princess is murdered by her brother under a willow
tree to prevent her access to the throne. One day, however, a ministrel finds one of her delicate bones under the tree and
fashions himself a flute from it. The flute made of a human bone plays only one song: the plaintive song of the murdered girl.
Mahler’s own version changes the story to two brothers, rival knights, who must find a rare flower in the woods in order to
qualify and marry a proud young queen. Part One, “Waldmärchen,” Forest Legend, sets up the tale, vividly
describes the search for the flower and ends with the murder under the willow tree. Part Two, “Der Spielmann,” The Ministrel,
follows the musician who carves the flute from a bone of the slain brother and plays the accusatory, revealing song all over
the kingdom and finally at court. In Part Three, “Hochzeitsstück,” Wedding Piece, the flute plays its song at the wedding, and the
young queen learns that she is marrying a murderer.
The composition shows the twenty-year-old Mahler without any artificial self-conscious preciousness or the occasional pomp and
triumphalism of his mature works (think of “Alpen Symphony”). The singers--soprano, mezzo, tenor and baritone, a massive
orchestra (the score asks for 2 to 6 harps!) and a big chorus tell the bone-chilling story in astonishingly modern ways, all taking
turns as storyteller and giving voice to different parts: the song of the flute, for example, is sung by mezzo Sasha Cooke, then, at
the climax, by soprano Joelle Harvey. The unexpected shifts of narration add greatly to the growing suspense of the cantata and
its shock-impact. They keep the listeners one their toes when sentences are sung by one or two or four solo voices and the
chorus suddenly moves in, taking over with a full blast of anguish (as in the refrain, “O Leide, weh! O Leide!”—Oh pain and
woe!) or intervening and commenting with tender sorrow.
In a strike of inspired story telling, the murder is not named or described. Instead, the vicious brother’s laughter of malignant
triumph is let loose by the chorus, while the mezzo invokes the innocent brother who “smiles as in a dream.” Then, a dead
silence, and the chorus together with the mezzo voice bring forth the stunned reaction of nature to the disaster, quiet awe and
mourning. The concluding line, a statement by the male chorus voices, is: “Im Wald, auf der grünen Heide, da steht eine alte
Weide.” (In the woods and on the green heath, there stands an old willow tree.) Nature has no comment or morality to dispense.
Joelle Harvey, Sasha Cooke
Echos from the Future
In all three parts of the hour-long cantata, Wagnerian echos are undeniable (the pounding rhythm of running-steps is almost identically Die Walküre), and he begins the tale with his own
“Tristan chord,” or rather “bone-flute chord,” making leitmotivish use of it. But most of his score, his complicated
harmonies and idiosyncratic use of instruments, moments of off-stage background orchestration, the folk-romantic passages,
march rhythms, mass-like choral moments, and the lyrical voices of woods, birds and flowers, is original Mahler, astonishingly
mature and accomplished. It made me think of Athena’s birth from the head of Zeus—a fully formed first masterpiece. In my
personal canon, the emotional power of the tale, its purity and musical boldness places it right next to Mahler’s very best, his much later Song of the Earth.
The fact that Mahler would eliminate Part I, the whole set up of the story with the act of murder, makes one wonder. Some
musicologists have speculated that the composer (sometimes called the “High Priest of Weltschmerz”) wanted to silence this
first part because it already presents all the major elements of his later symphonies, most particularly Symphony # 1. True,
Part 1 is particularly rich and interesting, as if we were listening to an echo from the future. Cutting the part surely didn’t help the success of Das Klagende Lied. Mahler’s Opus 1 was
considered “just a youth effort,” promising but minor, preventing its full recognition. (Even today the same bias is
proclaimed by critics like San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua Kosman: “Like some overeager sorcerer’s apprentice, he
unleashes great forces and then watches helplessly as they crash into one another.”)
Tilson Thomas chose the semi-staged event with a goal: to “take listeners through the beautiful intricacies of this work, using
video, lighting and other elements to peel back the layers of music. These elements will serve to illuminate every facet of
Mahler’s music, and it is my hope that the audience will walk away having had a deeper, more inspiring experience than they might have had otherwise.”
Good luck, MTT. “Peel away” and further “deepen” a musical tale
that pierces you again and again with its violence and searing beauty? But perhaps, if audience members can’t hear, or can’t
stand feeling too much, some visual entertainment may fill the gap.
This is what happened in this semi-staged attempt. The soloists, dancers and children occupy a narrow slice of space between
orchestra pit and chorus balustrade. They keep moving 4 chairs around, do a lot of staring at the woods projected (nicely) on the
back wall. The singers are luckily moving minimally and they do it well, especially soprano Harvey who wears a long braid like a
fairy tale girl. All are in excellent voice, but are placed so far back that they are at times overrun by the orchestra in front of them.
The dancers mostly follow the singers around as if worried anyone might come to harm, sit at their knees like listening
children, mime some violence, and each time the flute begins its lament, they don white masks and glue themselves to the legs of the singer like creepy vampire dogs.
Nothing is added to Mahler’s cantata except distraction from the powerful score, while a lot is lost: concentration, inward
listening, undiluted emotion. But multimedia spectacles are in. At the Symphony, the latest hit are movie projections with the
orchestra playing the scores. MTT in his 20th season at the helm is still eager to enlarge audiences and please them any way he
can. I can just imagine how some friend got him excited about director (not choreographer!) Darrah and his pretty dancers and
those innocent, tow-headed kids onstage being very charming—after all, it’s just a fairytale, isn’t it?
Photos - Cory Weaver