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BWW Opera Review: SF vs. NY, Tilson Thomas vs. Gilbert, Mezzo vs. Baritone, But Audiences Take the LIED

Conductor Alan Gilbert and
baritone Thomas Hampson.
Photo: Chris Lee

Earth Day has come and gone in 2016, but symphonic orchestra audiences in New York have lots to remember from this year's celebration, with performances of Mahler's DAS LIED VON DER ERDE (SONG OF THE EARTH). In less than a week, we had two different versions of the piece, with differing pluses and minuses: First, the San Francisco Symphony, under its music director, Michael Tilson Thomas performed the work at Carnegie Hall, then Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic had the home court advantage at Lincoln Center's Geffen Hall.

Mahler called the work "A Symphony for Tenor and Alto (or Baritone) and Orchestra"--it was his really his ninth symphony but he had a superstition about the number--although it is sometimes referred to as a song cycle, based on a collection of Chinese poems. Whatever you all it, the work--which "plumbs the depths and beauty of living, parting and salvation," according to the program, is one of Mahler's most thrilling creations--one that Leonard Bernstein called Mahler's "greatest symphony," and I wouldn't argue.

If there's a work of this scale that has a more intoxicating introduction, I can't think of it, starting as it does with "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" ("The Drinking Song of the Earth's Sorrow"). You don't have to be a heldentenor--that heroic brand of singer at home in Wagner's RING and such--to sing the tenor role in DAS LIED...but it couldn't hurt. (Of course, the classic recording with Otto Klemperer conducting features Christa Ludwig and the lyric Fritz Wunderlich, who was about as far from heldentenor as a tenor could get).

The orchestras brought a couple of potent Siegfrieds to make their points in the tenor songs: New Zealander Simon O'Neill with the San Francisco seemed to revel in the demandingly high tessitura of the role, producing a rich, ringing sound in Trinklied, the first of the six songs, and flying high over the heavy orchestration. Yet there was also undeniable sweetness to his singing that was worth relishing and a clarity to cheer. On the other hand, German Stefan Vinke, making his US debut in the Philharmonic's concert, took a more blustering, less nuanced approach to the work, as if volume were everything. There were moments when he was downright scary, though he calmed down considerably in his final piece, "Der Trunkene im Fruhling" ("The Drunkard in the Spring").

For the other pair of singers, Mahler left a choice, either mezzo or baritone. For beauty of voice, mezzo Sasha Cooke, with the SF Symphony, was definitely the one to hear, rich and flexible and gorgeous. Yet baritone Thomas Hampson--a Mahler scholar--brought infinite expressiveness and insight to his work with the Philharmonic, even if his voice has lost some of its resonance and sheen. He seemed to inhabit the songs like no one I've ever heard; in particular, his version of "Von der Schonheit" ("Of Beauty") converted me to thinking that only a baritone should sing it, with its reflection on the beauty of young girls (that is, if the baritone is as smart as Hampson).

Both singers brought fine artistry and wrenching sadness to the last of the songs, "Der abschied" ("The Farewell"), which was as long as the other five together. It is considered by some to be Mahler's greatest song and both singers dug deep to its core, though the colors in Cooke's voice were her strength as she almost whispered, "Ewig" ("Forever") at the end.

I can recall few performances when the Philharmonic sounded better that they did with the Mahler. Gilbert coaxed every nuance out of the ensemble and turned them into a magnificent beast. The orchestral soloists--the winds and brass were notably outstanding--were a grand reminder of how high the performance standards have become under Maestro Gilbert. The San Franciscans, on the other hand, often sounded muddy (and this, in the superior acoustics of Carnegie Hall!) under Tilson Thomas, who also made an odd choice of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, in a lackluster introduction to the concert. Gilbert chose a lesser known but ultimately perfect companion in the Sibelius 7th Symphony, with its compact length and intensity--and hints of modernism-- in a glowing performance from the orchestra.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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