The Plain Dealer,, 7 March 2008
by Donald Rosenberg
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde, Cleveland, 6 March 2008
Vocalists overcome sonic distractions to power Mahler's 'Song'
Gustav Mahler scored "Das Lied von der Erde" for tenor, baritone (or contralto) and orchestra. He might be surprised to hear his transcendent farewell to life accompanied by hearing aid.

The vexing electronic buzz that came and went throughout the Cleveland Orchestra's program Thursday at Severance Hall prompted music director Franz Welser-Most to address the audience twice during the Mahler.

The "whistling tone," as he called it, proved a major distraction, especially during the soft moments in "The Song of the Earth" and Olivier Messiaen's "Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum" when the music intends to transport us to another world.

Under more favorable circumstances, both pieces likely would have made greater impacts. Mahler's incandescent settings of Chinese poetry (translated into German) welcomed two rising singers, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann and British baritone Christopher Maltman, who fared admirably with the work's expressive demands.

Kaufmann thrust his stentorian voice into the hall in the lusty opening drinking song. Tenors can be overwhelmed by Mahler's instrumental outpouring, and Welser-Most's penchant for unleashing the orchestra's power led to instances of vocal disappearance. But Kaufmann's penetrating timbre and fierce attention to text often allowed the bold aspects to register. He could be one of the next generation's stellar heldentenors.

Mahler assigns most of the cycle's poignant utterances to the lower voice, especially in the expansive final movement. Maltman's gifts in art-song repertoire were evident in his fastidious limning of words and colors. The baritone's subtle sense of inflection illuminated the emotional extremes that culminate in the hushed statement of "ewig" ("forever").

Like others in the hall, Welser-Most was rightly miffed by the high-pitched disturbance. Even so, the audience could savor the horns' swaggering elegance, the solo winds' poetic allure and the orchestra's Mahlerian richness. In delicate passages, the ensemble was a model of luminous delineation.

Yet the performance was only momentarily riveting. Welser-Most tended to glide across many of Mahler's obsessive markings. Once transitions cohere and more elasticity is applied, the composer's remarkable achievement may resonate.

In its uniquely hued way, Messiaen's "And I Await the Resurrection of the Dead" is an ecstatic evocation of life and beyond. The piece receives sonic and spiritual distinction through the scoring for winds, brasses and percussion (mostly gongs and bells).

The account Thursday suggested the brilliant qualities of the various Cleveland sections, but Welser-Most basically beat time, turning what can be awesome into the dullest exercise. Messiaen's radiance was nowhere to be heard.

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