In a fairy tale end to the 2019 season, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra capped off the year with the second concert in Simone Young’s Visions of Vienna series, a performance of Gustav Mahler’s early cantata Das Klagende Lied. The three-year Visions of Vienna series, which began with August’s Schubert, Liszt and Ledger, has so far proven a fascinating exploration of some of the rarer gems to emerge from that storied musical hub, where Young was just recently honoured with the coveted European Culture Prize, receiving the award between conducting performances of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Vienna State Opera.

Simone Young and the Sydney Symphony OrchestraMichaela Schuster, Simone Young and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Jay Patel

Here Young presents another rarity, Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied or Song of Lamentation, a cantata with a libretto of his own devising, the composer delving into Clemens Brentano’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn and the tales collected by the brothers Grimm. While Mahler revised this work extensively over the years (as was typical for the composer), the first version was completed in 1880 when he was just 19 years old – he later referred to it as his Opus One. It might be a juvenile work (it doesn’t quite have the finesse of Mahler’s later orchestral writing, forged in the fires of his wildly successful career as a conductor) but it is already instantly recognisable as Mahler, with ideas emerging that the composer would refine over the course of his symphonies – not least in the audacious number of musicians involved. “The great novel is sketched,” as Pierre Boulez put it. “We will read its chapters progressively in works to come.”

The SSO performed Das Klagende Lied in 1990, but this is the orchestra’s first performance of the cantata complete with the original first movement, Waldmärchen, which Mahler eventually cut amongst the many revisions he made before the work was published in 1899 and premiered in 1901. Mahler continued to make revisions after the premiere, and this performance uses the 1906 revisions of the final two movements.

Mysterious horn and wind calls open Waldmärchen (forest legend), Young painting the scene with a fine brush (those pianissimo horn echoes!), before fairy tale harps – Mahler specified up to six, but the SSO opted for a modest three – gave way to surging bass clarinet and a rousing orchestral crescendo.

Australian tenor Steve Davislim – who joined Young for Britten’s Les Illuminations last year – gave a clear account of the opening line, “Es war eine stolze Königin” (there once was a haughty queen) drawing the audience into the story based on the legend the Grimm brothers called Der singende Knochen (the singing bone). The first movement sees two brothers search the forest for a red flower with which to win the hand of the haughty-but-beautiful queen, and while the younger knight finds it, his brother kills him for it while he sleeps.

Mahler tells the story with four soloists – Davislim joined by fellow Australians soprano Eleanor Lyons and bass-baritone Andrew Collis, as well as German mezzo Michaela Schuster – and a chorus – Brett Weymark’s Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Rather than being assigned specific roles, each provides narration, voices characters or comments on the action across the cantata. The result feels fragmentary at times, as singers enter for a few bars and then recede (and Collis ducks out after the first movement) but there are beautiful flashes: the gleaming metal of Davislim’s duet with Collis as they sing of the two brothers, or Lyons’ bright “Du wonnigliche Nachtigal” (you wonderful nightingale) against trilling piccolo. Schuster’s darker mezzo colours the mournful “Ihr Blumen, was seid ihr vom Tau si schwer” (You flowers, why are you so heavy from the dew), sung in the wake of the young knight’s murder, which itself is rendered with formidable drama by the chorus.

The second movement, Der Spielmann (the minstrel) sees the titular musician come upon one of the knight’s bones, carving it into a flute, which when played allows the murdered brother to tell his story. Again there are wonderful moments: the opening sombre march in the lower strings to the haunting susurration of the chorus’s staggered “spielmann” entries. Here Schuster duetted beautifully with cor anglais in her climactic “Ach, Spielmann, lieber Spielmann mein” (Oh, minstrel, my dear minstrel), as she voiced the magic flute as it reveals the crime that took place.

In the final chapter, Hochzeitsstück (wedding piece), the minstrel brings the flute to the castle where the queen and murderer are celebrating their wedding. Here Mahler calls for an offstage band – blaring in the distance behind the audience in the Concert Hall – to illustrate the festivities in another audacious move for a composer so young. There were times in this performance when the text from soloists and chorus was obscured somewhat in the maelstrom of the large forces involved, but here the audience was treated to a beautifully clear, if short-lived, trio from the soloists in a moment of relative quiet, Schuster soon bringing a sweetness to “Was ist der König so stumm und bleich” (Why is the king so pale and quiet?) and poignancy to her lament with trumpet as she again sings the flute’s song.

The chorus’s music was wonderfully unhinged as it described the king seizing the flute to play it himself (the choristers distinguished themselves throughout in this challenging score), before the soprano voiced the flute for the final time, Lyons’ ethereal tone becoming a wild scream as brother accuses brother in the cantata’s finale.

Young, a commanding presence on the podium, deftly unspooled Mahler’s fairy tale from moments of exquisitely fine detail to raging climaxes, handling the many moving parts with aplomb. There’s no denying that Das Klagende Lied is not Mahler at the height of his powers – it can’t help but pale somewhat, for example, in the wake of Young’s transportive account of the Sixth Symphony last year – but there is so much to marvel at in its fresh, vivid colours and sweeping drama, especially in the hands of such a masterful musical storyteller as Young.

There was something unsettling about the SSO’s final mainstage program in the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall (before its two-year exile during the refurbishment) ending with the apocalyptic collapse of a kingdom – “die alten Mauern sinken!” (the ancient walls falling) – but it certainly made for a thrilling conclusion, closing with a final chilling “Ach Leide!” (Ah, sorrow!) from the soprano.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Mahler’s Klagende Lied at the Sydney Opera House until December 7


Contribute to Limelight and support independent arts journalism.