Song of the Earth

I can’t help noticing symmetry in 2019’s Toronto Summer Music and its Beyond Borders theme.

The Festival opened July 12th with a concert featuring a Mozart sonata including the famous rondo “alla Turca” and a 20th century song cycle in a reduction to a smaller –sized ensemble. Tonight in the last TSM concert at Koerner Hall a Mozart concerto bearing the epithet “Turkish” and another 20th century song cycle presented in a reduced form would seem to bookend the Festival for us.

And both concerts were extraordinary.

Tonight we heard a reduced version of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (aka The Song of the Earth) a work for two singers normally with a large orchestra. In this reduction begun by Arnold Schoenberg in the decade following Mahler’s death, and only finished by Rainer Riehn in 1983, we encounter a new set of parameters for the six songs of the cycle, not unlike what we heard in the reduced “Four Last Songs” premiered last month. I think it becomes a new composition with different requirements, a different kind of balance & dynamics, amenable to lighter voices.


Mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb

We heard soloists Rihab Chaieb and Mario Bahg, the ensemble led by conductor Gemma New. The Schoenberg-Riehn score is for about 14 players (2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, harmonium, piano, percussion(2), horn, flute/piccolo, oboe/English horn, clarinet(s), bassoon), most if not all called upon to function as virtuoso soloists. There are no easy parts, indeed some are extremely challenging. Add to that the brisk tempi New took—especially in the wildest parts of “Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty)”—and you’re seeing something rare. With the usual orchestration that fast middle part of the song can be a loud murky mess (sorry Gustav), with its overtones of sexual violence: but New and Chaieb were crisp & precise, giving it a hair-raising ride. Is it heresy to suggest that this version fixes a part of the cycle that needs to be fixed? Perhaps.  At this moment Mahler captures the battle between yin & yang, perfect order confronted with a big noise, reflection vs action: just like life itself.   If we are to understand that the reduced version aimed for clarity, it’s fair to say that that goal was achieved, as inner voices came through as never before.

(morning after thought… deconstruction/analysis take us inside a work leading us to understand it better. Students used to be asked to paraphrase & reduce works as part of their study. Playing a piano reduction for instance gives you a sense of the interplay of voices that’s invaluable…DITTO hearing a new version like this one)

It was a great pleasure watching New’s direction, her body language so articulate as to seem to paint the music in the air before her.  This was a fast & dynamic interpretation, one that deserves to be heard again.


Gemma New (Fred Stucker Photography)

Bahg too has a remarkable voice with a gorgeous colour and fabulous legato, that he mostly kept in check in matching the dynamics of the ensemble. From time to time he unfurled a big gorgeous note especially up top.  Both soloists easily filled the space with their sound, articulating words & expressing the text clearly. These songs were the best thing I heard in the 2019 Festival.  I’m dying to hear it again.

Jonathan Crow has been everywhere in TSM, both as the Artistic Director and often as the star, and tonight he had me wondering if this was a bridge too far given that he was in effect playing exposed solos all night. Yet except for a few moments in the opening movement of the Mozart, when he was perhaps just getting warmed up, Crow continued to impress with his agile sound & full tone. In the first half of the concert we heard 3 movements that got better and better. I think it’s fair to say that the third movement was the one that really excited Crow, both for its quirky inter-cultural overtones (in keeping with the Festival’s theme after all) and for the challenges it posed.

The Festival concludes this weekend.

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1 Response to Song of the Earth

  1. Pingback: Gemma New, Kerson Leong and the TSO: “allez grand ou rentrez chez vous” | barczablog

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