Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde was something of a flagship in the composer’s slow rise to immortality — and never more so than in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s digital concert of the piece, which premieres online at 8 p.m. Thursday.
This time, the irresistible pathos of Mahler’s hour-long, six-song dramatization of eighth-century Chinese poems arrives from the Kimmel Center in a smaller-scale reduction by Arnold Schoenberg.
This version has surfaced occasionally — Dirk Brossé conducted it as an early calling card in his tenure with Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia — but has been pressed into service around the world over the past year especially, allowing for socially-distanced performances and for the piece to speak to our times with remarkable directness.
“My heart is tired,” reads one line of text, which came with a particularly vivid shudder in the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin in what may have been a reference to the cardiac condition that would eventually kill Mahler.
The work strikes home in a world that has been shut up too long and under the shadow of impending illness.
Later, the words that end the piece — “The lovely earth, all, everywhere, revives in spring and blooms anew ... everywhere ... shines the blue horizon” — go to the heart of what’s at stake amid climate change.
Both candid and monumental, The Song of the Earth (as it’s known in English) benefits here from smart use of camera closeups by video director Alexey Alexandrov, and from the kind of rediscovery that’s possible with smaller performing forces.
That said, ideal performances of the piece are hard to come by because the demands aren’t typical. The way the orchestra is broken into smaller but constantly shifting sections demands a highly personal commitment from principal players, requiring great technical poise but also emotional commitment.
One can count on that with an insightful Mahlerian such as Nézet-Séguin, and one comes to the end of the piece feeling as if a close personal connection has been made with oboist Philippe Tondre, flutist Jeffrey Khaner, hornist Jennifer Montone, bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa, and, thanks to its extraordinary subtlety, the entire percussion section.
If the video had been recorded as the last in a subscription run of three performances — instead of just the one — all of those positive qualities would’ve been magnified, and the vocal soloists would have a chance to delve deeper into the unfiltered exaltation and bottomless sorrow of the poems.
Tenor Russell Thomas faced off with some of the most brutal vocal lines in the entire tenor repertoire with astounding accuracy and authority. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung had to sustain the sprawling 30-minute final song, “The Farewell,” that is Mahler’s most daring conception, with a long funeral march in the middle.
DeYoung’s emotional commitment was palpable — she wiped away tears at the end — though the Wagnerian mileage on her voice (she’s especially known for singing Kundry in Parsifal) robbed her of the specificity she needed to reveal all that she was feeling.
And that was, indeed, a loss. Though one sympathizes with the quick-assembly circumstances of this concert, the singer’s text projection is paramount in this piece. The great Maureen Forrester was so adept at this that a single performance of her singing Das Lied von der Erde in the 1970s threw open a door to all of Mahler for me.
The Philadelphia Orchestra “Song of the Earth” concert premieres 8 p.m. May 27 as a Digital Stage production and is available on-demand through June 3. Tickets: $17. Information: philorch.org.