The excellent performance of Gustav Mahler’s Das Leid von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) gave the audience in St. Stephens Episcopal Church the opportunity to savor the beauty and power of what is arguably the greatest of all his works. In this performance Mahler’s skill in setting the translated words of an ancient Chinese poet with music arising from his soul’s response to those words was clearly heard in the inspired singing of Ellen Williams, mezzo-soprano and Timothy W. Sparks, tenor, and the playing of an excellent chamber orchestra of well-known Triangle instrumentalists, all under the able direction of Scott Tilley.

This song-symphony, or symphonic song cycle, composed of music bringing to life six poems translated from the words of the eighth-century Chinese poet Li-T’ai-Pa, is perhaps Mahler’s most in-depth musical expression of feelings and ideas which had filled his mind for many years: the enjoyment of life’s many beauties; the pleasures of Nature; the haunting recognition of life’s evanescence; the futile efforts made to escape the inevitability of failure; and the prophecy of eventual pain, regret and death everyone must face.

Mahler’s original orchestral score in which these poems are set is rich with the passion, the anguish, the fear and finally the resignation to despair of their persona which the composer perhaps saw as a portrait of himself even though it was created many hundreds of years before he lived. Masterful as that score is, I prefer the Arnold Schoenberg transcription of it for thirteen players. He left it unfinished, to be completed in 1983 by Reiner Riehn. The great beauty and effectiveness of this transcription for a small orchestra is its ability to convey the same passions and feelings as the original score did, but in a more quiet, intense, intimate manner.

Against this orchestral background the voices of Ellen Williams and Timothy Sparks stood out clearly for the most part, inviting the listener to hear the many expressions of transitory joy, fear, grief, loneliness and total despair. Sparks’ dramatic singing of the first piece, “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” (“The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth”) drew every listener into the angst pervading the words. His voice soared with power, emotion, beauty and great energy. The great difficulty of the piece is not so much the high tessitura and many high notes, each of which seems higher than those preceding, but the tension and passion which the tenor increases in his evocation of spectral death-figures that cannot be erased from memory by music and song. Sparks’ next offering, “Von der Jugend” (“Of Youth”) is lighter in mood than the first, allowing him to express in short, joyful lines vivid recollections of green grass, white pavilions and friends in silken garments in a voice totally free of anguish and fear. His final song recalls something of the first. “Der Trunkene im Fruhling” (“The Drunkard in Spring”) depicts a man’s efforts to avoid recognizing dark truths by drinking himself into a stupor; once again the ascending phrases and dramatic high notes express his despair.

Ellen Williams’ rich mezzo-soprano voice is the perfect vehicle for her three songs. Her first, “Der Einsame im Herbst” (“The Lonely One in Autumn”), is filled with autumn imagery of fading life, reflecting the loneliness and despair of one who sees only a resistless need to fall into the deep sleep of death as the darkness of winter comes on. Her facial expressions, her body language and hand gestures assist her beautiful voice in conveying the meaning of this song. Williams’ great vocal ability is also evident in “Von der Schonheit” (“Of Beauty”), as it skillfully evokes the speaker’s excited happiness in recalling a world inhabited by beautiful women, handsome men, and noble horses. The last piece, “Der Abschied” (“The Farewell”), is the longest, the most powerful, and the most difficult of the six songs in the cycle. Williams was more than equal to the task of expressing the deep sadness that comes from being forever separated from a beloved friend, and the knowledge that this pain will never cease was reflected in her projection of increased tension and deep sorrow in the lengthy vocal lines and in her face. The most evocative part of the song came toward the end, as the singer accepts with resignation the loneliness of an eternity without the love which has been lost. The most expressive vocal gestures are the repetitions of “ewig, ewig” (“eternity, eternity”) in her lower register as the song ends.

The only negative comment that must be made about the singers’ performances is that sometimes they could not be heard; when they were singing in the lower registers the orchestra covered them up.  There was little that could be done to eliminate the problem.