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Intimate Mahler

June 3, 2015

JoAnn with the members of the Attacca Quartet, who performed the Mahler-Schoenberg Song of the Earth and Songs of a Wayfarer

The Virginia Arts Festival presented a performance (followed by a Naxos recording) of two extraordinary pieces by Gustav Mahler—his Songs of a Wayfarer and Song of the Earth. Rather than Mahler’s original versions of these works, the VAF players and conductor JoAnn Falletta chose to present the arrangements of these works that were undertaken and performed by composer Arnold Schoenberg. In 1918, Schoenberg founded the Society for Private Musical Performances. In the three years that the group existed, they performed 353 concerts, presenting a variety of new and traditional music with great care, integrity and affection. Two rules existed for the Society: no critics were allowed to attend their concerts; and applause after any performance was forbidden!

Schoenberg, who loved Mahler’s music, undertook the amazing task of transcribing the enormous Song of the Earth and the more modestly scored Songs of a Wayfarer for a chamber ensemble. His arrangements are gorgeous, and surprisingly retain extraordinary power and strength with the smaller forces.

In some ways the intimacy of these settings creates a landscape in which the works seem even more potent and emotionally searing.

JoAnn with Roderick Williams after the performance of Songs of a Wayfarer
Photo: David Beloff

Mahler’s two song cycles—separated by 25 years—seem to frame the composer’s life. Songs of a Wayfarer was written when he was 24 years old and heartbroken—suffering from unrequited love. Mahler wrote the texts himself, strongly reflecting his personal sorrow. The young man leaves home on the day that his sweetheart marries another, wandering the world in despair and yearning. The beauty of nature is a poignant counterpoint to his sorrow, until he finally finds peace “under the linden tree”, where he bids the world goodbye forever.

The Song of the Earth was composed near the end of Mahler’s life, but his love of nature was just as compelling. It is one of the composer’s most personal and most beautiful works, combining the concepts of symphony and song cycle. Set to Chinese poetry that explores the relationship between death and nature, the six songs present human life as a transient stage in the ever-renewing cycle of the earth. Mahler’s autumnal and nostalgic mood contrasts with visions of youth, exhilaration and sensuality, and serves to heighten the pain of the eternal farewell.

Mahler soloists: Susan Platts, Roderick Williams, JoAnn Falletta & Charles Reid

The singers—Susan Platts, Charles Reid and Roderick Williams—were superb. The sheer beauty of their voices and their ability to convey the complexity and profound meaning of the text made the performances unforgettable.

The following day JoAnn, soloists and VAF musicians returned to the studio to record both pieces for Naxos, with the help of exemplary producer Tim Handley. The group hopes that the release of this recording will encourage many more performances of Schoenberg’s Mahler transcriptions.

JoAnn and the VAF performers certainly have fallen in love with these works, and will always treasure the experience of inhabiting this special world of a stunning Mahler-Schoenberg collaboration.

JoAnn Falletta Biography & Discography

Roderick Williams Biography & Discography

Susan Platts Biography & Discography

Charles Reid Biography & Discography

Gustav Mahler Biography & Discography

Arnold Schoenberg Biography & Discography


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