The depths of earth’s sorrow: Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at Müpa Budapest

The blending of stirring, richly textured music and downbeat, desolate poetry makes an intoxicating cocktail, no more so than in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. At Müpa Budapest last night, Roberto Paternostro and the Dohnányi Orchestra Budafok launched into the opening Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde with huge energy and plenty of Schwung – we knew we were in for a high octane ride.

Roberto Paternostro conducts the Dohnányi Orchestra Budafok © Péter Mocsonoky

Roberto Paternostro conducts the Dohnányi Orchestra Budafok

© Péter Mocsonoky

However, mixologists need to get their proportions right. An orchestra at that wall-of-sound level would need a Heldentenor with a truly massive voice to be heard above it and Erin Caves was submerged in the cascading waves of sound. Which was a shame, because Caves proved himself wonderfully adept at entering into the character of the poetry. In Das Trinklied, he plumbed the depths of Earth’s Sorrow with the refrain “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” (dark is life, dark is death) enunciated with fervour that increased at every repeat. He was a genial companion in Von der Jugend, the one genuinely cheerful interlude in the whole work, and then produced a riveting Der Trunkene im Frühling. Caves incarnation of a sad drunk – or rather an apparently happy drunk who veers into maudlin misery at the slightest opportunity – was utterly compelling.

The mezzo role was taken at short notice by Atala Schöck, standing in for the indisposed Szilvia Vörös. Schöck is a very fine singer and gave us wonderful sound production: super-smooth legato, attractive timbre, clear German diction. But the lack of preparation showed: the ends of phrases were slightly clipped, where lingering a little longer would have given more of the Mahlerian effect of sadness wafting in the air. And for her first two songs, Der Einsame im Herbst and Von der Schönheit, her engagement with the text wasn’t as total as one might have hoped for. Schöck was at her best in the closing Abschied, with the heartache of farewell and the musing on the beauty of the world tellingly put across – I was suffused by the thought that Mahler’s contrast between human mortality and the eternal beauty of the world feels particularly bitter in these times where the survival of the natural world’s beauty is decidedly in question.

Erin Caves, Atala Schöck and Roberto Paternostro © Péter Mocsonoky
Erin Caves, Atala Schöck and Roberto Paternostro
© Péter Mocsonoky

Throughout the evening, there was a lot of quality on show from individual instrumentalists, with beautiful woodwind phrases and brass which could impose itself or blend into a texture. As ever in this concert hall, the details of every instrument were distinct and vivid. Paternostro is a straightforward conductor: there are no histrionics, just simple giving of tempo and cues with which his musicians seemed completely comfortable. And a hat tip to the surtitle operators; Hungarian and English surtitles were expertly timed to each line of German, making the meaning especially easy to follow.

I’m never sure that a mighty Mahler Symphony needs to be preceded by a shorter Classical work played by a smaller subset of the musicians. Last night wasn’t an exception. Haydn’s Symphony no. 99 in E flat major was played competently enough but won’t linger long in the memory. However, I will be taking every chance I get to return to Das Lied von der Erde.