BSO, soloists capture wistfulness of 'Das Lied'

October 24, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

After a month-long absence, David Zinman's return to Meyerhoff Hall last night resulted in what was the Baltimore Symphony's finest performance so far this season.

The work performed was Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" ("The Song of the Earth") and it marked the completion of Zinman's traversal -- in his 13th and final season as the orchestra's music director -- of all of the composer's symphonies.

Literally speaking, of course, "Das Lied" is actually a symphonic song cycle -- a setting of several poems from Hans Bethge's translation of ancient Chinese texts. That it is a song cycle, however, is not why Mahler refrained from calling "Das lied" his Symphony No. 9. He had no such hesitation in calling its predecessor, which is actually an oratorio, his Symphony No. 8.

But in the summer of 1908 when he composed "Das Lied," Mahler was mortally ill. He was also superstitious; he knew that Beethoven and Schubert both died after competing their respective Ninths and that Bruckner died with his Ninth unfinished.

"Das Lied von der Erde" is, therefore, at once an effort to cheat death and one haunted by its threat: A retrospective on life's joy and sadness that ends with an extended farewell (the final movement is marked "Abschied") of unearthly beauty that fades to nothing.

Zinman's performance captured the music's rapture and wistfulness with refinement, breadth and intensity. I doubt that any of this conductor's previous Mahler performances, fine as many have been, have matched the concentration he achieved through the 30-minute length of the final "Abschied." And none of those previous readings have so successfully characterized -- whether in the heroically drunken outrage of the work's opening pages or the resignation of the closing ones -- Mahler's mercurial sense of fantasy.

If Zinman and the orchestra beautifully accompanied the two soloists, mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby and tenor Jon Villars, they were also helped enormously by them. Maultsby sang her songs, including the "Abschied," most expressively. And Villars was nothing short of extraordinary. This young singer -- with his freely ringing, powerful voice and his passionate sense of occasion -- may be the Heldentenor we've all been waiting for.

The program, which opened with an expert performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 by BSO concertmaster Herbert Greenberg, will be repeated tonight at 8.

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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