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Mahler ist der Maler

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/05/2017 -  
Claude Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, “Tragic”, D. 417
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G Major

Genia Kühmeier (soprano)
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor)

G. Kühmeier (© Tina King)

“Sleigh bells ring, are you listenin’?
In the lane, snow is glistenin’
A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight
Walking in a winter wonderland.”
Richard B. Smith

“Each of the first three movements has the most profound and significant thematic links with the last.”
Mahler to conductor Georg Göhler in a 1911 letter

For this evening, our second Mahler 4 this season, there were no protestors with picket signs and banners out front, not targeting Mahler but rather maestro Gergiev. We have seen them many times before, my favorite incident being when they protested Gergiev when he wasn’t even in the hall (it was rather an Anna Netrebko recital). This year there were police lined up in front of the hall (very unusual), but the only signs people were holding said “I need tickets!” I would only point out that Mahler was music director of the Philharmonic here at Carnegie and he did not feel ready to face the crowd with any but his first two symphonies.

In our city, the Munich Philharmonic has not fared well in recent years. In 2002, after James Levine signed on but had already hinted that he would not be staying, I wrote of his Mahler 4: “The sadly pedestrian Munich Phil is not capable of either extreme and the result was especially disappointing to Levine fanatics who know that the irregular rhythms of Mahler’s own heart beat in his chest.” Even the significant recordings of Celibidache reveal this ensemble’s shortcomings. But hope springs eternal, so we gave them another bite at the Big Apple.

When did modern music begin? With the Tristan chord? Transfigured Night (1899)? For me it is when the modulations in Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune first startled the listener’s ear in 1894. Maestro Gergiev led a rather un-magical performance where the implied promises of pauses before transitions could have been much better fulfilled. This performance was televised live and the large number of microphones and cameras throughout the stage seemed to distract the musicians just enough to be noticeable to the ear as well as the eye.

Schubert’s “Tragic” Symphony was subjected to a gargantuan ensemble which would have made the composer leave the hall screaming. Praising with faint damnations, I would point out that the eight basses alone established a bottom that was almost frightening for this modern audience. Besides some rather sloppy play the orchestra muddied the final Allegro and turned the Menuetto a little too lento for my taste.

At the end of the premiere performance of Mahler’s 4th Symphony, the reaction was so hostile that the composer/conductor sent his soprano out alone to face the crowd. I once experienced a similar sense of audience violence during a performance of the same piece here at Carnegie Hall, when two well-dressed men got into an actual fistfight during Maestro Chailly’s rather exaggeratedly kinetic first movement. This was not handbags at twenty paces, but a purely physical confrontation. However, my most vivid Mahler 4 memory is when Magdalena Kozená came out towards the conclusion of the third movement to get ready to sing in the fourth but could not find a path to the front of the stage. Finally, with make-up smeared horrifically, she made her way when some string players moved their seats to create a pathway.

After blowing Schubert away, the Munich brass section played rather sloppily in the first movement of the Mahler and the ensemble sound as a whole was unremarkable. In the second movement we noticed that there was a seat provided for the scordatura (deliberately mistuned) violin but none for the soprano when she arrived. This visual awareness of the “death fiddle” was important, as its sound was almost completely subsumed by the soloist’s awareness of the camera set-up as we poor rabble in the theater had to extrapolate quite a bit of this otherwise significant homage to another musical age. Gergiev’s conducting style seemed visually to concentrate a great deal of his energies on small details as he let the main body of the work get away from him just a tad.

Again as in the Third Symphony the Adagio is a poem of memory, alternately joyful and laden with sorrow, and it is hard to argue with the composer’s own statements that this is the most beautiful of all of his creations. Late in the movement he again experiments with the phenomenon of memory when he gives the superlative reworking of the main theme to the cello section not as a dominant subject but rather as an inner voice and then writes a variant melody hidden even deeper in the final measures for the violas as a recollection even more difficult to bring to the surface (some of these Mahlerian jewels take many listenings to reveal themselves). Here, rather surprisingly, Maestro and his forces really shone, certainly offering forth the best performance of the evening. The “hidden” viola theme was enunciated clearly and played beautifully. Hope began to claw her way back into my ear and heart.

A glorious fanfare introduces the familiar childlike (or grandmotherly) persona and her tale of otherworldly delights. The idiom employed here, now so familiar, was in 1901 quietly revolutionary. Gergiev chose what I label the “Coronation entrance”, the featured soprano majestically ushering forth from the wings on the wings of this aristocratic orchestral salute. The entrance was fine, but the subsequent performance was not. Genia Kühmeier was not big-voiced enough to play such a large hall. She probably sounded fine in the TV performance where her rather small instrument could be electronically enhanced, but here she seemed defeated by the gargantuan proportions of both hall and accompanying ensemble. Several phrases were simply swallowed up by the orchestra or just intoned at too low of a volume.

So whose Mahler 4 was the more effective this season, Gilbert or Gergiev? A memory of mine helps put this comparison into perspective. When I played the Bruno Walter Vienna Philharmonic farewell concert (1960) featuring the Mahler 4, my radio station received some very appreciative and emotional telephone calls. What stood out in that reading was its gentleness. Neither of these renditions was particularly gentle or memorable, but the edge definitely goes to Gilbert. Of course, he is leaving New York in just a few weeks.

Fred Kirshnit



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