Making his debut as the latest artistic partner, Edo de Waart helps the SPCO sink its teeth into the piece.
The music world hasn't lacked occasions to reflect on that Bohemian Jewish intellectual turned cult figure, Gustav Mahler. 2010 was the sesquicentennial of his birth; 2011 -- auspiciously inaugurated at Friday's Ordway Center concert by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra -- is the centenary of his death.
Mahler performances by chamber orchestras are bound to remain rare; the composer wrote precisely nothing for the medium. But thanks to the Mahler-admiring Arnold Schoenberg, smallish ensembles such as the SPCO can sink their teeth into "Das Lied von der Erde" ("The Song of the Earth") -- the late, death-haunted song-symphony, originally for an orchestra of a hundred, that Mahler deemed his "most personal" work. (Schoenberg's imaginative transcription, for 14 instrumentalists, was laid aside in 1920, and completed more than 60 years later by musicologist Rainer Riehn.)
Schoenberg's reduction was a thoroughly utilitarian act when performances of this music were scarce and recordings nonexistent. But in the 21st century, with superb realizations available at the click of a mouse, is his bonsai-like version of "Das Lied" anything more than a curiosity?
The answer is an emphatic yes, especially with Edo de Waart at the helm. Making his debut as the SPCO's latest artistic partner, the Dutch-born, Wisconsin-dwelling conductor -- who served as assistant to two Mahlerians, Leonard Bernstein and Bernard Haitink -- offered a ripe reading, balancing the music's yearning with what Bruno Walter, who led the 1911 premiere, called its "transcendental aloofness." Now and again -- iin the erotically charged "Of Beauty," for instance -- I missed the weight and surge of Mahler's scoring. But this was offset by gains in detail and in the intelligibility of the German text.
Tenor William Burden, his tone keen-edged, captured both the lyricism and the swagger of his songs. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, splendidly free of the wooliness that some mezzos bring to this music, met the challenge of the melting "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell"), in which Mahler seems to live his own dying -- though her last moments felt a bit prosaic. The SPCO shone.
Opening the program was Franz Schreker's 1917 Chamber Symphony, an engrossing, proto-cinematic color wheel on steroids, its sound-world deeply indebted to Schoenberg and Mahler. A fit companion for "Das Lied"? De Waart certainly thinks so: Acknowledging the audience's applause, he held Schreker's score in the air, then gave it two thumbs up.
Larry Fuchsberg writes about music.