LA Phil Presents Double Bill of Schubert Symphonies and Mahler Songs

By Truman C. Wang

As the LA Phil’s spring season is sounding its last notes, we saw the pairing of two Viennese composers, Schubert and Mahler, who were shown to be odd but surprisingly suitable bedfellows.  In the May 18 concert, we heard Schubert’s beguiling, youthful Symphonies No. 5 and 6, full of Viennese charm and conviviality.  They were paired with Mahler’s Rückert Lieder – five songs ranging from discovering love under a Linden tree, to doubting love (“Liebst du um Schönheit”) and ultimately renunciation of love (“Ich bin der Welt”).

These five settings of the Rückert poems are not a cycle nor follow any particular order.  Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, with an eye for drama, sang the songs of youthful exuberance first ("Liebst du um Schönheit", "Blicke mir nicht") before tackling the slow numbers of initial calm followed by extreme anguish ("Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft", "Um Mitternacht").  Her singing was sensitively and sensibly weighted to add power and gravitas to the songs.  The final song, “Ich bin der Welt” was particularly powerful for the intense and dramatic delivery of the text.   Ms. Cooke was accompanied brilliantly by maestro Dudamel, featuring some exceptional wind solos and exquisite strings.

The Schubert’s Symphonies No. 5 and 6 were altogether less successful, lacking the warmth and laid-back Viennese charm.  The neurosis and restlessness of Mahler had apparently rubbed off on the young Schubert and the result was uncomfortable to say the least.

Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8, heard on May 21, had the same problem of heavy-handedness that ruined the hushed opening despite the truly magical balance between the woodwind and strings in the rest of the performance.  It wasn’t until the “Great” Symphony No. 9 that maestro Dudamel became completely in tune with Schubert, achieving a fine sense of balance between relaxed joie de vivre and bursts of intensity.   Particularly endearing was the Trio section’s gentle swing and infectious high spirits.  The exhilarating finale featured featherlight delicate strings and excitedly lusty horns (It is the lusty month of May, after all). 

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke returned to deliver a superb reading of four Wunderhorn songs by Mahler, again carefully chosen for maximal drama.   The popular and folksy “Rheinlegendchen" was followed by the haunting tale of a girl and her dead soldier lover in “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen".  The last two songs, "Das irdische leben" and "Urlicht" – portraying the harrowing death of a starving child, and the afterlife of light and abundance – were sung with scarcely less riveting intensity than the Rückert Lieder. 

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.