Not quite eternal

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  November 26, 2007
THE WORLD’S GREATEST ORCHESTRA? You’d be hard-pressed to find a better one.

When what’s arguably the world’s best symphony orchestra, with one of the world’s leading conductors, comes to town to play one of the monuments of Romantic early-20th-century music, with two of the world’s finest singers, expectations run high. It would be too much to say that the Celebrity Series-sponsored performance of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”) that Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought to Symphony Hall Monday night, with Canadian tenor Ben Heppner and German baritone Thomas Quasthoff, was a disappointment. I can’t recall hearing a live Lied that was this good. But Mahler’s song cycle about taking leave of the Earth has to be a life-and-death experience, and this wasn’t.

Heppner and Quasthoff have sung the piece together in Symphony Hall before, in October 1998 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and before that Heppner had sung it here in November 1994 with Anne Sofie von Otter and the BSO under then guest conductor James Levine (who will be doing the piece with Otter and Johan Botha and the BSO in April). Leaning forward, and holding a pocket version of the score in his right hand, as if embarrassed to admit he knew his three songs — the odd-numbered ones, “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” (“The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow”), “Von der Jugend” (“Of Youth”), and “Der Trunkene im Frühling” (“The Drunkard in Spring”) — by heart, Heppner was more authoritative than I remember his being in ’98. He had to fight the orchestra, as almost every tenor does in this work, and there were times when Rattle could have done more to help. Against that, Rattle made room for feeling in what many conductors treat as pure extroversion, the tenor as blustery alcoholic. Heppner was a sobered, reflective alcoholic, caressing his “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” (“Dark is life, is death”) refrains in “Trinklied,” pausing wistfully before “Ein voller Becher Weins” (“A full goblet of wine”), celebrating the blooming of the Earth in spring. The reflection was physical in the water’s mirror image in “Von der Jugend,” and he made it palpable. When in “Der Trunkene im Frühling” he discovered that spring had arrived, awe colored his voice, and when he raged at the black firmament, he made you recall how back in the “Trinklied” the firmament was eternally blue. The tenor’s last line is “Laßt mich betrunken sein!”; Heppner rolled the “r,” as if to ask what choice the world had given him.

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