Chamber-sized performance of Kindertotenlieder hits emotional and musical core of Mahler's intentions
Last night, one week after singing his last performance as Orestes in the Canadian opera Company production of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, Rusell Braun stood on stage at Koerner Hall for an intense, all-Mahler programme that began with a performance of Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) that I'll treasure for a long time.
Also on the program was Das Lied von den Erde (Song of the Earth). The accompanists were a chamber ensemble of strings, winds, piano, harmonium and percussion made up of the Smithsonian Chamber Players as well as Royal Conservatory of Music faculty and alumni. The chamber arrangements were crafted by American cellist Kenneth Slowick, in the spirit of Arnold Schönberg's short-lived, post-World War I Society for Private Musical Performances.
(Slowick conducted, wearing an eye patch. I was told that he almost didn't make it to the concert because of a detached retina, wasn't allowed to fly, and so drove up to Toronto from Washington D.C.)
The tenor for Das Lied was Thomas Cooley, who did a nice job, but who sounded strained negotiating some of Mahler's very difficult vocal leaps. Braun, however, was flawless, curling not only his gorgeous baritone but every nuance of possible expression around this arresting music.
After sitting through the concert, I think I prefer the chamber arrangements to Mahler's original full orchestration. The small number of people on stage, as well as the nakedness of each instrumental part further underlines the subject matter, of a person confronting the intense emotions and loss and the inevitability of all things coming to an eventual end, weighed against the eternally regenerative cycle of life.
The songs are written in such a way that the singer is a lone wanderer among the crowd of people and emotions, which are represented by the instruments. They all intertwine in a strange harmonic tangle and travel from dark to light and then back again.
(I imagined it staged as a chamber opera, with the orchestra members and singer moving around a lamplit sitting room with a view of mountains through a large window.)
There are many examples of fine music depicting the messiness of human life, but few pieces present it in as concentrated and highly defined form as Kindertotenlieder. I would have been content to simply hear those five songs performed again after intermission, to further savour the many, many layers of meaning and expression.
I could suggest something to listen to from YouTube, but am not going to. There's a very fine performance of Kindertotenlieder by Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, with conductor Lorin Maazel, from the 1960s, but it just doesn't have the same impact as what I heard last night.