When Good Is Not Good Enough
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
Béla Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz. 106
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G Major
Christina Landshamer (soprano)
New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor)
C. Landshamer (© Marco Borggreve)
“No music is there on earth which may be compared with ours.”
Mahler 4th Symphony, 4th movement
“I sometimes get so angry at my Viennese that I wish them a single rear end, so that I could thrash them all with one stick.”
Sigmund Freud, quoted in Freud, A Life for Our Time by Peter Gay
Mahler’s first essay on memory (the others being the later song cycles Kindertotenlieder and Das Lied von der Erde plus the Symphony #9) is the gentle Symphony #4. The process of the creation of this lovely piece is worthy of consideration. Mahler began its composition with an already completed finale, excised from the previous symphony. Starting with the ending, he ingeniously employs the spirit of an old Baroque form of composition known as the variation suite, wherein variants of the main musical material appear before the theme itself, and amends the concept to include not only notes and chords but also colors and moods. The most recent example of this venerable technique in its stricter form with which he would have been familiar was the Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet, composed in 1891 by Johannes Brahms, one of his most significant friends, whom he visited every summer (in fact, the only penchant that bitter enemies Brahms and Bruckner had in common was their genuine fondness for and admiration of their brilliant junior colleague).
From the first notes, accompanied by sleigh bells, we are transported into a pre-Raphaelite world of childhood recollection. The melodies glide through the circular orbits of the seemingly amateur rounds of the first movement like skaters at a Victorian birthday party, recalling the fluid motion of the second subject of the Allegretto from Schubert’s Symphony # 3 (this is Mahler at his most Viennese). It seems that the children’s songs are quoted from the folk and popular idioms of the day and yet they are all original Mahler compositions. The fleeting reappearance of the bells is a happy memory, cinematic in nature and recalling those many grainy Hollywood moments of the 1940’s when artists sought escape from the horrors of war through the recollection of past winters of gleeful abandon (for example It’s A Wonderful Life or King’s Row). It is not surprising that Mahler puts many listeners in mind of the great movie scores of the century since these new art forms were created by men such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who grew up in the Vienna of the composer at just the right time to be profoundly under the influence of his music.
It almost seemed that a different orchestra was performing the Mahler than the previous work, as the violas of Cynthia Phelps replaced the violins of Sheryl Staples in the front stage left (more about this later). This was a decent traversal of the Mahler notable for its quietude and respectful recollection, but really rather unremarkable. The scordatura (deliberately mis-tuned violin) of concertmaster Frank Huang was interesting, but paled before live versions of the past, most notably that of William De Pasquale of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The New York band is about to take its annual trip to Europe and will be bringing this Mahler symphony. They would be well advised to tighten it up quite a bit before performing such hometown music in places like Budapest.
The Adagio contains the most beautiful music that Mahler ever wrote, but this version was but a pale shadow. Oh, everyone hit their notes relatively consistently, but there was little evanescence, little mythology. One bright spot, however, was the Phil’s penchant for placing the violas up front, as the “hidden” theme at the close of the movement was prominently and gorgeously intoned.
After so much aesthetic preparation, the final vocal section is like the flourishing of a previously repressed recollection. This finale, itself already previously composed as the Wunderhorn song Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life), presents a child’s view of Heaven, where all is bounty and wonder and inextricably tied to music (the original folk poem is entitled “Heaven is Full of Violins”). It is sung by a solo soprano and expresses innocent joy that ends quietly (some artists read the character as grandmotherly rather than childlike, but either approach translates into warm nostalgia). With this magical ending, as striking in performance as a whisper, Mahler felt the need to create a quieter sonic world than those which he had previously explored. The orchestra for the fourth is very small by the elephantine standards of the early 1900’s and requires little from its brass (there are not even any parts for trombone).
That whisper was reproduced by soprano Christina Landshamer, whose voice was very quiet, too quiet for such a large, acoustically challenged hall. One had to hear some of Mahler’s notes in their imagination, as Ms. Landshamer’s rather thin soprano was often subsumed by the instrumentalists and one can only imagine the effect in the upper reaches of the house. Of course, many of the European venues are considerably smaller, so she may be acceptable “on the road” however she was simply overmatched this night.
With the possible exception of a highly idiosyncratic Symphony No.1 of Mahler led by Manfred Honeck, Alan Gilbert’s presentation of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in October was the highlight of the season thus far and this reprise made whole the Philharmonic’s program that will be exported to Europe later this month. Even with the mirror image platform positioning, last evening’s reading did not bode well as stirs of echoes of mediocrity haunted the presentation. All of the notes were there, but little of the atavistic crispness. In October I wrote:
“With the celestial connection that these numbers exhibit, this perhaps should be the first piece of music sent into deep space for communicative purposes.”
Now they are headed for the Old World, but definitely need some retooling and re-imagination before stepping on that plane.