The ASO’s eight year Mahler Cycle project is in its penultimate phase with two works this year before the epic journey concludes in 2013.
It is clearly a bold and visionary undertaking but under Music Director and Chief Conductor, Arvo Volmer’s direction, Saturday evening’s Das Lied Von Der Erde (The Song of the Earth) certainly suggests the project will end as another landmark for the ASO.
When conceived in 1908, Mahler had just experienced a series of devastating events in his life, including the loss of his role as director of the Vienna Court Opera (due, in part, to anti-semitism) and the death of his eldest daughter. As well, he personally had been diagnosed with a congenital heart disorder. The sum of it all caused him to express to a close friend at the time, “I have lost everything I have gained in terms of who I thought I was.”
With the haunting prospect of the ‘cursed’ ninth symphony looming for him as well, it is probably no surprise that the content of Mahler’s The Song of the Earth is often so dark, moody and restless and in increasing contemplation of his own mortality. Adapting Hans Bethge’s own translations of Chinese poetry, the work is littered with phrases such as ‘Dark is life, dark is death’, ‘My heart is weary. My little lamp has gone out with a splutter;’ and ‘My friend, on this earth, life has not been kind to me.’
Mahler’s friend, Bruno Walter called it “the most personal utterance among Mahler’s creations, and perhaps in all music” with the last song in the cycle, The Farewell, a haunting affair requiring all the mastery conductor, soloist and players can muster.
In this regard, the ASO’s performance on Saturday night was greatly enhanced by the work of Swedish Katarina Karneus (mezzo soprano) and Stuart Skelton (tenor), the latter certainly known to Adelaide audiences for his performances in the 2005 Ring Cycle, for which he received a Sir Robert Helpmann Award. Volmer and the ASO are to be congratulated on bringing two such world class performers to the Festival Theatre for this performance.
This was just the fourth time the ASO has performed Das Lied Von Der Erde and the first since 1986. Armed with this fact, those in attendance on Saturday may well have contemplated their own potential for longevity (as Mahler was doing his) should it come to the question of whether they would get to hear it again in Adelaide in their lifetime. However the vicissitudes of life may pan out, just being there have them one up on the composer himself who found not only this dark period not an interregnum between happier times but that he would both die within three years without having heard this great work performed and still fall victim to the ‘cursed’ 9th.
The next stage of Mahler cycle project is the Symphony No. 7 which is being played at the Festival Theatre on Saturday 11th August.