In Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth"), which SFS recorded in 2007, Mahler composed six rather trippy songs based on ancient Chinese poems, four by Li Bai, the "wandering poet" of the Tang dynasty. The vocal wandering and searching continues in Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ("Songs of the Wayfarer"), which SFS will present with baritone Thomas Hampson. Wayfarer traces a young man's crazy voyage of romantic love, including "I Went this Morning over the Field," in which a finch shouts, "Zink! Zink! How the world delights me!" and the creepy, suicidal, "I Have a Gleaming Knife." SFS will also perform Rückert-Lieder with the radiant mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, in which Mahler forcefully adapts the OK poet Friedrich Rückert, kicking off the set with a bittersweet wink called "Do Not Look at My Songs!"
In working his way through Mahler's oeuvre, SFS conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is doing something very psychologically interesting. The project is a bit anal everything is polished to MTT's usual, almost fussy, tee and recorded using the latest mind-boggling technology. And it's a bit Oedipal MTT's mentor, Leonard Bernstein, who also presented Wayfarer with Hampson, became possessed by Mahler at one point, taking on Mahler's symphonies as if his life depended on it. To Bernstein, Mahler foretold a century of death and despair and "showered a rain of beauty on this world." That century is over, and Bernstein's recordings with the New York Philharmonic are gorgeous. So why the redo? Beyond the Freudian hoo-haw, I think MTT, with his ultra-refined yet luminescent interpretations, is moving past it. He's presenting Mahler not as a turbulent visionary or stereotypical cloud-headed groundbreaker but simply as a glowing green fact, one for a new century, complicated and complex enough already, to chew on but not choke on.
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY MAHLER FESTIVAL
Wed/16-October 3, various times and prices
Davies Symphony Hall
201 Van Ness, SF