Magnificent Mahler Concert Touches the Heart
by Joseph So / November 14, 2000
Gustav Mahler and the Liederabend mit Orchester
Michael Schade, tenor
Russell Braun, baritone
Brett Polegato, baritone
Members of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra
Richard Bradshaw, conductor
November 9th 2000
Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto
With this concert, the CBC Gustav Mahler Series came to a spectacular end at the Glenn Gould Studio on Thursday evening. It featured three of the brightest Canadian stars of the operatic stage, together with members of the COC Orchestra conducted by Richard Bradshaw – luxury casting indeed! Sold out months in advance, it is a pity that not more could be accommodated in the 364-seat theatre. For those who missed it, the concert will be broadcast on Sunday, November 12, 2 pm on CBC Radio Two as part of the Gustav Mahler Week, and again rebroadcast at 8 pm the same day on Radio One.
This program is a reconstruction of the concert that took place on January 19, 1905 in Vienna, under the auspices of the Vereinigung Schaffender Tonkunstler. Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander Zemlinsky founded this group as a reaction against the musical establishment at the time. Mahler, sympathetic to the two marginalized composers, agreed to be the honorary president and conducted this concert that took place at the Brahmsalle, a hall with a similar seating capacity as the Glenn Gould Studio, with a reduced orchestra and three soloists.
Among the twelve songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the five chosen here are among the most dramatic. Tenor Michael Schade’s exuberant personality shines through in the satirical Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, sung with a sense of mischief and ringing tone. Baritone Brett Polegato is assigned Der Tamboursg’sell and Revelge, two of the most gut-wrenching in the song literature. He sings these with great beauty of tone and dramatic intensity, and is ever so faithful to Mahler’s very specific instructions on the coloring of the voice in Der Tamboursg’sell. Of the three works presented, Kindertotenlieder is the only one performed complete here. Russell Braun’s soft-grained baritone suits these very sad songs particularly well. Other than some initial tentativeness, Braun sings so sincerely and movingly that he was given a warm, well-deserved ovation.
For this listener, the highlight of the evening was the Ruckert Lieder. The fifth song, Liebst du um Schonheit, was not orchestrated by the composer and thus omitted here. This cycle requires the gentlest of touches by the soloist and the orchestra, and the contribution of Schade and Polegato are incomparable. Schade uses his head voice so effectively and beautifully in Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft that one could almost smell the scent of lime in the air! The playful qualities of Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder is given full rein by the tenor. It is hard to imagine a song of greater transcendental beauty than Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, arguably Mahler’s greatest achievement as a song composer. It should be sung with a sense of world-weariness and resignation that touches the heart, and Polegato does not disappoint here, using his smooth-as-silk baritone to give us a most poetic and introspective reading.
Given the lively acoustic of the Glenn Gould Studio, the orchestra, though reduced, is still a couple of decibels too loud for the soloists, despite the best efforts of conductor Richard Bradshaw to hold down the forces. On the other hand, it shows just how wonderful the COC Orchestra can sound when it is liberated from the acoustic disaster that is the Hummingbird Centre. Considering that Mahler is hardly ever in their repertoire, kudos to all for their exceptional music-making. So, all your Mahlerites out there – mark your calendars and tune in this week!