Singing German lieder to a sparse turnout at Ruth Eckerd Hall might have been a dispiriting experience in the wrong hands, but mezzo-soprano Janis Taylor, the soloist with the Florida Orchestra in an all-Mahler program Thursday night, is a true artist who refused to let that happen.
Taylor sang Mahler's five songs that are known as the Ruckert Lieder, and she had to cope with the relative slightness of the first three songs, especially Liebst du um Schonheit ("If you love for beauty"), which the composer dedicated to his wife, Alma, but never orchestrated himself. Under Jahja Ling, the orchestra occasionally played too loudly and covered up the singer.
But then came Um Mitternacht ("At midnight"), and Taylor seemed to move up to a higher plane, with her voice rising beautifully from the orchestral setting, lending a sense of serenity to the desolate lyrics. The final song, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen ("I have lost touch with the world"), ended with a long, lovely note by English horn that was a perfect echo to Taylor's gorgeous, darkly rich tone.
Mahler demands concentration, and the orchestra got off to a slack start in his Symphony No. 1, with slipped notes here and there in the early going and a ragged conclusion to the first movement, but the playing got more alert as things went along.
In the third movement, the double bass solo by Dee Moses from the nursery round Frere Jacques was suitably distorted (it's supposed to be a parody), and some of the insinuating violin passages would have been right at home in the decadent cabaret shows of Germany in the 1920s.
It's not hard to imagine how shocking this symphony must have sounded when it was first performed in the 1880s and '90s.
Mahler's symphonies were, in many ways, a response to technological advances in musical instruments, particularly the brass, and the French horn section stood up in the finale to deliver a powerful knockout punch.
Originally, the First Symphony had five, not four, movements, and Thursday's concert began with the missing one. Blumine, which had been the second movement, was deleted by Mahler when he revised the symphony.
It's a lovely fragment, with a trumpet solo by Robert Smith, and the argument can be made that restoring it to the symphony would be an improvement.