On Thursday the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — led by principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles and featuring mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor — performed a concert of music by Gustav Mahler. The concert included Mahler’s “Rückert Lieder” and Symphony No. 5.
The symphony was performed again Friday night, but without O’Connor or the “Rückert Lieder” because it is one of the ASO’s shortened First Friday concerts. The full program will not be repeated again because Saturday is the occasion of the ASO’s annual gala celebration.
This was Runnicles’ first appearance on the ASO podium this season. It was not, however, the first time Runnicles and O’Connor had performed this same all-Mahler program together. In mid-August, the two closed out the Grand Teton Music Festival’s summer season with them.
Although the pairing of “Rückert Lieder” and Symphony No. 5 makes for a short first half and a long second half — the former just over 20 minutes and the latter over 70 — it is an exceptional pairing thematically because both works have their seeds in the same set of events in Mahler’s life.
On February 24, 1901, Mahler conducted two physically demanding concerts: in the afternoon, a performance that featured Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 with the Vienna Philharmonic, then a performance of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” that evening with the Vienna Court Opera. Mahler suffered a massive, nearly fatal hemorrhage late that night. He barely escaping death thanks to his sister, Justine, promptly summoning a doctor.
Mahler himself estimated that he lost a third of his blood from the incident, and likely 10 years of his life. Nevertheless, he did begin to recover and that summer retreated to his new lakeside villa in Maiernigg, in southern Austria. During his three-month stay there, Mahler wrote the first two movements of the Symphony No. 5 as well as a large number of songs, some of which became the “Rückert Lieder.”
The “Rückert Lieder” are five orchestral settings of poems by German writer Friedrich Rückert. They are quintessential Mahler in their range of orchestral color, but they are also evocative of the most intimate side of the composer, a set of windows into his personal life. This concert was the first time they’ve been performed by the ASO.
Familiar to Atlanta audiences both through her performances and recordings with the ASO, O’Connor was a superbly fitting choice for soloist for these songs. Her glowing mezzo voice, her clarity and attention to subtle details dovetailed beautifully with Mahler’s colorful but not-overbearing orchestration.
Mahler uses a large orchestra to underscore the voice, but in using a wide palette is careful to allow the voice to be easily heard — a great contrast from Schumann’s Violin Concerto two weeks ago. The performance by O’Connor, Runnicles and the orchestra felt symbiotic in the best meaning.
O’Connor will share the stage with Runnicles again next week in three performances of Claude Debussy’s “La Damoiselle élue” with the Berlin Philharmonic, soprano Martina Welschenbach and women of the Berlin Radio Choir.
That Atlanta audiences got only one opportunity to hear the “Rückert Lieder” this week is a genuine shame.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 held attention for well over an hour, from its opening trumpet fanfare to its exhilarating finale. The duration was shorter, however, than some other modern conductors.
The primary factor is the fourth movement, entitled “Adagietto” and marked “Sehr langsam.” There is great divergence of opinion as to how fast that “Sehr langsam” is meant to be played, with performance durations ranging from seven to as much as 12 minutes.
Runnicles is on the faster side of that spectrum, along with Bruno Walter and Willem Mengelberg, versus the languid tempo of Herbert von Karajan, the most extreme example on the long side.
However a listener’s tastes lie in that area, Thursday’s performance was easily the orchestra’s best so far this year. The immediate standing ovation at its conclusion was well deserved. Additional cheers went up as Runnicles acknowledged principal horn Brice Andrus and principal trumpet Stuart Stephenson, and then again as he acknowledged each section of the orchestra. It was a happy instance where audience and critic seemed to wholeheartedly agree.