Transcendence the Mahler way

Times Music Critic

Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" (Song of the Earth) is a symphony for tenor and mezzo soprano. Having learned of his incurable heart infection, the distraught composer turned to Chinese poetry for solace, understanding, a wisp of beauty.

He wrote quickly at his cottage in the Alps the summer of 1908, still vital but frustrated that he was no longer permitted his energetic hikes or racing around on his bicycle. So with "Das Lied," he began a remarkable three-part symphonic farewell to the world (which concluded with the Ninth and unfinished Tenth). Typically, he fought death and found acceptance. Untypically, he then reached a state of transcendence. Incredibly, the greatest symphonist of his age (I'd say the greatest of them all) gave voice to that transcendence.

Saturday night, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted a mesmerizing "Das Lied," the second of three weekend performances at . At the end, Lilli Paasikivi sang her last word of text, "ewig," over and over, ever more slowly, going lower and lower into her deepest alto range as the Finnish mezzo endlessly drew out the German word for eternity.

The orchestra monitored final life signs. The symphony's heart slowed to a few erratic pulses on the harp, a last hopeful tinkle on the celesta. The flat line came with a barely audible chord in the violins and horns. Mahler's genius, though, was to make those last notes not fade but seem as though they could continue forever, and the Disney acoustic sounded at that moment designed for just such a moment. The audience needed a good minute to find the breath to cheer.


Recognition of mortality

Mahler was 48 when he wrote "Das Lied." Salonen is a vigorous 49. I'm told he's greeting his birthday next month with mordant Finnish fatalism, quipping that 50 is the new 70. Recognition of mortality, but not an ounce of sentimentality, could be sensed in an interpretation of "Das Lied" that was clear-headed yet profoundly expressive.

Salonen is in the midst of his own drawn-out farewell to the Philharmonic. Next season will be his last, and the five weeks he is spending with the orchestra this spring are his last sustained period of time with the orchestra he has headed since 1992. The past two weeks he concentrated on the glorious flowering of the late Romanticism of Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner. The second half of May, he will stick to the 20th and the 21st centuries.

Mahler is the turning point of these concerts as his late symphonies were for the transition of music into the modern age. Mahler may not have shared Samuel Beckett's taste for brevity, but spiritually and stylistically, he was the composer who seemed as though he couldn't go on but went on.


A disquieting abandon

Anthony Dean Griffey was the tenor for "Das Lied." He must sing of drink and carousing while staring down dark death, and Griffey did so, going on with disquieting abandon.

The mezzo, though, is the singer of the earth, an earth knowing nothing of global warming as brief autumn fades to long-lasting winter. Griffey puts a lot of vibrato into his tone, creating a sense of frightening urgency. Paasikivi uses little vibrato and is all the more moving for the purity of her burnished sound.

Dying is, of course, all about living, and we embrace "Das Lied" because it feels, in the end, so alive. The Chinese poetry, which is set in German translation, and the Chinese melodies that Mahler adapted evoked new sensations to 20th century Europeans. Mahler used the orchestra mostly as a collection of soloists, and that too implies a life force. The playing from everyone -- winds, strings, brass, percussion -- was outstanding.

Hindemith's symphony based on his opera "Mathis der Maler" opened the program. Salonen made excellent recordings of both it and "Das Lied" with the orchestra in 1999. He would make even better ones today.

The opera concerns the painter Matthias Grunewald and the symphony describes his “Isenheim Altar” -- its angels, entombment and temptation of St. Anthony. As he did in "Das Lied," Salonen avoided religiosity but not description in a vividly colored reading.

That "Mathis" recording, part of an all-Hindemith CD, was inexplicably never released in America, and I had never been able to find a copy here until now. The Disney gift shop has imported a number of copies. The disc also includes a terrific performance of "The Four Temperaments" with Emanuel Ax as the piano soloist. Grab a copy while you can.


Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World