On Wednesday evening, I walked down to Carnegie Hall to hear the last musical event on my calendar for the 2016-2017 season as the Met Orchestra gave the first of three scheduled concerts. I subscribe to this series and had originally planned to all attend all three concerts but then changed my mind when James Levine dropped out as conductor. I kept the ticket to first concert because it featured an all-Mahler program as well as mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and tenor Michael Polenzani as guest artists. In place of Mr. Levine, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the orchestra.
The program opened with Mahler's 1905 cycle of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn - "Der Schildwache Nachtlied," "Verlor'ne Müh," "Trost im Unglück," "Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht," "Das irdische Leben," "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt," "Rheinlegendchen," "Lied des Verfolgten im Turm," "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen," and "Lob des hohen Verstandes." I've taken the time to list the titles of all ten songs simply because Mahler's adaptations from the early nineteenth century collection of folk poems extended over a number of years and included works for both voice and piano as well as voice and orchestra. Even the 1905 edition of the latter, that performed here, differed from the 1899 edition that included two additional songs - "Urlicht" and "Es sungen drei Engel." The reader is referred to the Wikipedia article for a fuller history.
If the history of Mahler's compositions based on Des Knaben Wunderhorn is convoluted, it's because the source material had such a huge impact upon him and ran like a thread through his music. This was not simply a case of a composer happening upon a well known poem and setting it to music as Schubert and Brahms had done in their lieder. The Wunderhorn anthology provided not only material for roughly half the songs Mahler composed during his career but also for his symphonies. One has to wonder why this archaic collection of songs that hover uneasily between folk tradition and German Romanticism held such vital appeal for a composer who was himself by birth not German but Bohemian. These strange songs must have held a personal significance for Mahler that perhaps he himself did not fully comprehend. Some of his settings have a martial air while others are seemingly no more than idyllic love songs. The most harrowing is Das irdische Leben ("The Earthly Life") told from the point of view of a starving child. The death of a child was one to which Mahler would return several years later in his 1904 Kindertotenlieder that presaged the death of his own daughter and was based on a series of poems by Friedrich Rückert who had also lost two of his own children to scarlet fever. Eight of Mahler's siblings had died while still in childhood and he must necessarily have been deeply traumatized by this introduction at so young an age to the finality of death.
Susan Graham and Michael Polenzani each took a place on one side of the conductor and alternated in their performances of the song. (There was one humorous moment, though, where Ms. Graham waved Mr. Polenzani back to his seat and proceeded to sing two songs in a row.) Both were in fine voice and helped the audience to experience the beauty of both the words and music.
After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of the Symphony No. 1 in D major (1884-1888), originally entitled "The Titan." As is the case with any composer writing his first symphony, Mahler struggled mightily with the No. 1 in the fifteen year period between the first tentative sketches completed in 1884 and its publication in 1899. He was constantly reworking it, creating and then deleting programmatic explanations, first giving it a title and then just as quickly removing it. Listening to the music, it seems that Mahler was trying to put into it everything he had experienced in his life up to that point - snatches of Songs of a Wayfarer, a funeral march, bird songs, and even a children's nursery rhyme. No wonder early listeners, including the composer's future wife Alma, were confused and even repelled by what they heard. But underlying the ceaseless experimentation and accumulation of sources is the sense that this is a work of genius, difficult to comprehend perhaps, but undeniably a masterpiece. There is a grandeur in this symphony that makes its original title highly appropriate. It is indeed titanic and a turning point in the history of modern music. In it lie the seeds of the great symphonies that were to come.
Esa-Pekka Salonen is a talented conductor, but the intricacies of Mahler's music, especially that of the Symphony No. 1, appeared beyond his grasp on Wednesday evening. This was to me not an entirely satisfying performance (though the audience applauded quite enthusiastically at its conclusion), but I was still able to appreciate the magnificence of Mahler's achievement.