Saturday, August 21, 2010

Preview: Mahler's view of idyllic youths turns them upside-down

Tenor Robert Dean Smith sings "On Youth" from Mahler's Song of the Earth, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink, in November 2006 (part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Haitink's association with the orchestra).
MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth):
iii. "Von der Jugend" ("On Youth")

[English translation by Deryck Cooke]

In the middle of the little pool
stands a pavilion of green
and of white porcelain.

Like the back of a tiger
arches the bridge of jade
over to the pavilion.

In the little house friends are sitting,
beautifully dressed, drinking, chatting;
several are writing verses.

Their silken sleeves slip
backwards, their silken caps
perch gaily on the back of their necks.

On the little pool's still
surface everything appears
fantastically in a mirror image.

Everything is standing on its head
in the pavilion of green
and of white porcelain;

Like a half-moon stands the bridge,
upside-down its arch. Friends,
beautifully dressed, are drinking, chatting.

by Ken

As I explained last night, heading toward tomorrow's Sunday Classics post, we're working our way backwards through the three tenor songs (Nos. 1, 3, and 5) of Mahler's Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde), starting last night with the last of them, "The Drunk in Spring" ("Der Trunkene im Frühling"). Tonight we come to the shortest of the song symphony's six movements, No. 3, "On Youth" ("Von der Jugend"), which typically lasts 3-3½ minutes -- though tomorrow we're going to hear the longest as well as most remarkable performance of the song I've ever heard.


. . . of "the special personal identification that opened this song up for me -- or perhaps opened me up for this song" type. Here goes.

Once upon a time there was this person I really hated, I mean loathed. He wasn't just a personal doodyhead but, in my view, a professional disgrace and menace, who built a wildly successful career on a bedrock of intellectual dishonesty and laziness and, generally speaking, fraud. For me he embodied everything that was wrong with the universe. I would be embarrassed to recount the horrors and torments I wished on him.

I had, of course, known Mahler's Song of the Earth for ages by the time this blight on humanity befouled the general cultural life and beclouded my own personal life. And I had never paid all that much attention to the briefest of its six movements, also the most self-consciously Chinese-sounding (all of the poems set here, of course, are based on Chinese originals, as translated by Hans Bethge in his collection The Chinese Flute), the third movement, "On Youth." (In the orchestration of this song in particular, bear in mind the title of Bethge's edition.) It presents an utterly idyllic picture of a group of perfect, clearly elite youths huddled together in their pavillon of green and of white porcelain, in the middle of that lake, with the jade bridge -- those perfect friends sitting drinking and chatting, and writing their verses.

Suddenly, during one fateful hearing, the succeeding image registered with me in a way it never had before. It's the "mirror" image of the perfect friends in their magically perfect pavilion, an image in which they and their pavilion and even the jade bridge are all upside-down. And I was seeing my nemesis, that most hateful of pavilion insiders, suddenly upside-down. Suddenly the song seemed to be giving me, not the charmed insiders' perspective, but the clearer-eyed, solitary outsider's view. And suddenly all those perfect friends seemed faintly ridiculous. No, not faintly ridiculous, downright preposterous.

I would love to be able to say that henceforth my nemesis ceased to torment me, that his existence no longer drove a stake through my heart me as it celebrated the injustice of this stinking universe. Um, afraid not. That upside-down reflection didn't diminish the corrosive reality of his undeservedly charmed existence, or improve my blighted existence. It didn't cure my rage over the cosmic unruliness and unfairness of the universe. And yet, somehow it was all changed. Somewhere, I understood, there was official recognition of all that injustice.

I don't say that my "interpretation" of the song is "correct." I don't even know what that would mean. I just know that ever since, "Von der Jugend" has been for me one of the most bittersweet and yet somehow redeeming strains of song on this earth.

We hear two notably different musical views of our little enchanted pavilion. It's not a matter of tempo (the timings are eight seconds apart), but of vigor of attack and tone. First, in what we might call "aggressive" mode, we hear the German tenor Waldemar Kmentt, possessor of a remarkably full lyric tenor that, when under control, as it pretty much is in this performance, could also be a remarkably fine, even supple lyric tenor, but one that was at least as likely to be sufficiently out of vocal whack to cause the listener notable distress. (This is from a generally first-rate live Das Lied conducted by Rafael Kubelik, who unfortunately never made a commercial recording of the piece, with Janet Baker doing some of her loveliest recorded work in the alto songs.) Then, as promised, we hear Richard Lewis with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, in what we might call "reflective" mode. (This is from the same recording out of which we heard Maureen Forrester's haunting "Farewell.")

MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth):
iii. "Von der Jugend" ("On Youth")

Waldemar Kmentt, tenor; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik, cond. Live performance, Feb. 27, 1970

Richard Lewis, tenor; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Richard Lewis, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Nov. 7 and 9, 1959


We finally reach the opening of Das Lied, the most substantial of the tenor's songs, "The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of Earth," and do some reflecting on the three songs.

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