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Portrait from the artist as a young man

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Mahler’s Klagende Lied
Simone Young, Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Opera House, December 6
★★★★½

With its huge logistical demands, including large choir and orchestra, four soloists and a raucous offstage windband, Mahler’s extravagant early cantata, Das Klagende Lied, has been heard in Sydney only rarely, and, its original three-movement version, never until now.

Yet, as Simone Young and the SSO showed, this work not only enhances understanding of Mahler’s early genesis, it also makes enthralling listening in live performance. The work builds on a folk tale, related by the Brothers Grimm and others, in which a flute, made from the bone of a murdered brother, is played at the wedding of the murdering brother, unmasking the latter’s treachery.

The early work gives a fascinating insight into Mahler's development as a composer.

The early work gives a fascinating insight into Mahler’s development as a composer.Credit:Hulton Archive

The first movement opens with horns, string tremelos, sudden rushes and woodwind calls, evoking the Romantic mystery of forests. It is true that the constantly shifting dramatic flow takes some adjustment, which may partly explain why it was cut. Mahler switches rapidly between instrumental pictorialism, solo narrative and chorus commentary.

Tenor Steve Davislim sang with a radiant tone in upper register while baritone Andrew Collis’s sound had subdued grittiness. Soprano Eleanor Lyons’ voice had a thrilling and fiery edge impressively cutting through large orchestral and choral phalanxes. It fell to mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster to sing the bone-flute’s sorrowful song – Klagende Lied – in the second and the third movement, creating subdued subtlety and mystery through carefully moulded colours.

Mahler lifts the loneliness of this movement with highly original orchestration, using extreme high and low notes to emphasise depth and scale, which Young and SSO balanced with discernment. The final movement, the wedding feast, begins festively before a jarring change of mood when the sorrowful song returns. Young’s coordination and balance of the mainstage choir, soloists and orchestra with the frantically bacchanalian wind orchestra offstage was impressive, creating textures fascinating both for their sound and their expressive complexity.

Hearing this striking, if imperfect, early work was like seeing a work such as Shakespeare’s The Two of Verona and finding it not only worthwhile for its own sake but also for the missing piece it provides in the picture of genius.



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