Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 and Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”

The London Symphony Orchestra at Lincoln Center on Friday, October 23.

Schubert and Mahler both can be classified as Romantic composers, but their careers fell at opposite ends of the period. Schubert came early, helping bridge the gap between Classic and Romantic, and Mahler came late, transitioning from Romantic to Modernist twentieth-century styles. Pairing the two composers underlines just how drastically composition changed over the nineteenth century. Both are lyrical and expressive, but the evolution of harmony and form and orchestrational technique is impossible to miss.

On Friday night, the London Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Bernard Haitink, gave exquisite performances of Schubert’s so-called “Unfinished” Symphony and Mahler’s gorgeously depressing Das Lied von der Erde (though I did question a few of Haitink’s tempo choices). Sean has a theory that orchestral musicians perform best when they have something to prove, either to a guest conductor or a city they’re visiting, which meant that the LSO was doubly motivated—and, frankly, better than we usually hear from the New York Philharmonic. The strings, in particular, were as one, perfectly in sync in their every phrase, and the many wind soloists in Das Lied were universally strong.

In a weird way, though, the performance was so transporting that I’m having a terrible time trying to write about it. I was so wrapped up in it all (and, I admit, a bit worn out by a long week at work) that I forgot to make my typical mental notes. But Schubert’s elegant early Romanticism enchanted me, especially in the hushed pianissimos, which the orchestra performed with striking finesse. And Mahler I can’t help but love. His extravagant, tempestuous, passionate Lied is a marvel of orchestration, tinged with Eastern inflections (the text comprises loose settings of Chinese poetry) and deliciously varied in its texture: although the orchestra is huge, Mahler rarely deploys everyone at once, instead creating an ever-changing chamber-like sound. It takes a good hour to perform the whole thing, but Das Lied von der Erde flies by nonetheless, heartfelt and profound and absolutely lovely.

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