Fischer, NSO mine the beauty in 'Das Lied von der Erde'

Christianne Stotijn sang a haunting
Christianne Stotijn sang a haunting "Der Abschied." (Marco Borggreve)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010

The tenor begins with a drinking song and ends with a drinking song. The mezzo-soprano begins and ends with one of the most haunting oboe melodies in the orchestral literature.

The two singers sing three songs each that intertwine into the shattering vocal symphony that is Gustav Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" ("The Song of the Earth"), which the National Symphony Orchestra and Iván Fischer, with the tenor Stig Andersen and the mezzo Christianne Stotijn, performed Thursday night.

The texts of "Das Lied" are German adaptations of, or riffs on, Chinese poems. Like the words, the music retains strong traces of Orientalism amid waves of tempestuous late romantic ardor.

Emphasis on "tempestuous": In Fischer's hands, the surges of sound threatened to batter apart the anchors of precision that tether the music to the shore. It wasn't that the reading was sloppy so much as emotive -- individual instrumental voices in the orchestra welled up, one after the other, all equal, details clamoring to be heard.

With each successive NSO performance, it becomes clearer that Fischer is not an architect of a piece's structure. Rather, he is a connoisseur of sound. The strengths of his approach come from delving into a score and unlocking all kinds of beautiful things within it, rather than technical precision or a calculated critical overview.

On Thursday night, there were plenty of problems of coordination, both in "Das Lied" and in the piece that preceded it, Mozart's "Prague" Symphony, in which the stripped-down orchestra -- Mozart-size and sitting with the winds and brass physically separating the two banks of strings -- sounded fine and excited and a little blunt, without the tautness or crispness of what generally passes for Mozart style in a large modern orchestra. The flute and oboe, in particular, seemed to have trouble playing together in their second-movement exchanges. But there was also plenty of energy, a little heavy, emanating from the conductor -- a kind of burnished delight.

Fischer's lack of critical distance means a lack of calculated effect, or even shaping. The Mahler began, seemingly in medias res, with a kind of lurching heave that propelled the listener into the music without preparation. It set the tone for an evening that kept depositing the listener into new emotional landscapes without warning. But that meant the wonderful details emerged in particularly sharp relief: The oboe sounded fantastic and heartbreaking; the harps provided dark punctuation marks; the cello sang out radiantly.

All of that yielded a cumulative effect. The culminating and by far longest song, "Der Abscheid" ("The Farewell"), took on increasing power until by the end, it packed a tremendous emotional wallop.

The singers, alas, were the weak link. Andersen looked every inch the heldentenor, but was generally hard to hear and strangled to the point of incapacity on his top notes. But his final song, "Der Trunkene im Frühling" ("The Drunk Man in Spring"), allowed him to save face with a convincingly jolly portrayal of an inebriated man, and hit near-poetry with the beautiful phrase "Der Lenz ist da" ("Spring is here").

Stotijn was deeply committed emotionally, knew the music by heart and was often pleasant to listen to, but the voice was not supported well and repeatedly grew acidly thin on the upper notes. She also struggled with her intonation. Stotijn marshaled all her forces and rallied in "Der Abschied," which was her strongest contribution. After her keening, low repetition of the words "Ewig, ewig" ("Eternally, eternally"), underlined by a star-shower of silvery notes from the celesta, Fischer's baton, held aloft, bound audience and orchestra in long, poignant moments of total silence.

The program will repeat Friday night at 8 as a benefit for Haiti. Preceding it, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Millennium Stage, will be a special Haitian benefit event featuring members of the orchestra, the Haitian dance band Tabou Combo, Haitian singers Felina Backer and John Pierremont, and Georgetown University's Let Freedom Ring Choir. Admission is free, but donations will be collected for the American Red Cross. The NSO program also repeats Saturday.

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