NEW YORK (AP) -- Composer and conductor Gustav Mahler's symphonies and orchestral songs are a journey from darkness to light — a tumultuous tale in sound for which Carnegie Hall reserved two whole weeks.
The Staatskapelle Berlin played the marathon, ending Sunday, with half the 10 concerts conducted by Daniel Barenboim and the rest by Pierre Boulez.
In this setting, it was impossible not to feel the musical ghost of a New Yorker who was Mahler's greatest champion, the late Leonard Bernstein. He and the New York Philharmonic started performing Mahler at Carnegie in the 1950s, reintroducing the world to the works of the Austrian composer almost five decades after Mahler himself conducted them at Carnegie.
The differences among Bernstein, Barenboim and Boulez when it comes to Mahler couldn't be more marked.
Bernstein's tormented, introspective take on the music alternated with his outbursts of flailing Mahlerian ecstasy. Barenboim's readings seethe with subtly controlled passion; at moments, he barely moves, allowing the orchestra to probe Mahler's discomforting chromaticism and dizzying rhythms.
Boulez, who specializes in the Symphony No. 6, approaches Mahler with a cool head, excising instrumental voices and rhythms from the often massive musical flesh with the precision of a surgeon with a scalpel. The drama is in the music itself, not in the conducting.
On Saturday evening, Barenboim led "Das Lied von der Erde," or "The Song of the Earth," which was the farewell to life for Mahler, who died in Vienna at age 50. This collection of songs based on Chinese poetry reflects Mahler's tussles with mortality amid nature, ending with the ravishing last bars of "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell"), which fade into nothing with the repeated word "Ewig" ("eternal").
The mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung captured the moment with an ethereal but fervent voice that sailed above the orchestra. In the other, more lighthearted songs — including a drinking song — tenor Klaus Florian Vogt's bright head voice lacked the big heroic timbre this music requires.
"These songs bring us in some way to another influence on Mahler which is very seldom spoken about — and that is Schubert," Barenboim said backstage before Saturday's performance, noting that Mahler even quotes directly from a piano score by Franz Schubert. "Without the Schubert songs there would never have been these Mahler songs."
"Das Lied" ends with Mahler's acceptance of the end of his life, coming full circle from the excited, youthful bravado of Symphony No. 1 that opened the Carnegie cycle.
Saturday's concert also included the Adagio from Mahler's Symphony No. 10, which he never lived to complete.
Barenboim conducted the 22-minute movement with a sweeping breadth of sound, from its haunting viola opening through the pained melodies and leaps of more than an octave to the screaming, dissonant nine-note chord that seems to stare death in the face.
Barenboim draws on the Staatskapelle's rich, dark sound with a visceral, spontaneous energy, achieved after 60 years as both pianist and conductor.
A packed Carnegie Hall rewarded Berlin's oldest orchestra, founded in 1570, and its 66-year-old "conductor for life" with repeated calls to the stage and a standing ovation.
It was on this stage about a century ago that Mahler conducted the Philharmonic, in a city that offered the Jewish convert to Catholicism respite from the stifling anti-Semitism of Vienna, the death of his 4-year-old daughter and his wife's infidelity. On Feb. 21, 1911, Mahler collapsed during rehearsals at Carnegie but insisted on going forward with the concert — the last time he would conduct an orchestra.
In many ways, Mahler's wanderings through his own psyche and the world are reflected in his music, including the "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" ("Songs of a Wayfarer"), sung by baritone Thomas Hampson in an earlier concert of the series.
"I still have difficulties with some of Mahler's music, because some of it still strikes me as artificial," said Barenboim, explaining, "Mahler had one foot in the past — the (Richard) Wagner influence especially — and one foot in the future."
A new boxed set of the Mahler symphonies under Bernstein honors the 50th anniversary of his appointment as music director of the Philharmonic.
"To be compared to Bernstein," said Barenboim, "is a compliment."
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