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The Grandeur That Was Gustav’s

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/25/2012 -  
Hugo Wolf: Manuel Venegas: Frühlingschor – Elfenlied – Der Feuerreiter
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection"

Camilla Tilling (Soprano), Bernarda Fink (Mezzo-Soprano)
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller (Conductor), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (Music Director and Conductor)

C. Tilling (© Anna Hult)

Hugo Wolf would doubtless have recoiled sharing a program with his nemesis Gustav Mahler. Born in the same year, the two were opposites in every way. Where Mahler reveled and exalted in his songs, Wolf felt that song-writing was an inferior occupation. Where Mahler’s temper was solely in the cause of his music, Wolf had a personal testiness which repelled his colleagues. And where Mahler progressed upwards through his conducting and writing, Wolf, perhaps dogged by the syphilis which sent him to the lunatic asylum, rarely was able to make a living.

More important, as Sir Simon Rattle showed last night, Wolf’s choral songs–written in exactly the same years that Mahler was composing his Second Symphony–were little more than pleasant dalliances. Granted, one of them was an orchestration made in the asylum (Loony Tune? Merry Malady?), but the simplicity and simple charm was hardly one of Sir Simon’s great discoveries.

The shortest piece, Elfenlied, was sung beautifully by soprano, Camilla Tilling, but both that and the gruesome poem about a horseman on fire could have been an outtake from Weber’s Freischütz, written 70 years before.

The full house audience at Carnegie Hall had of course come for Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, a fitting enough sequel to Bruckner’s symphony about death, played the night before.

As expected, this was caviar to the Berlin Philharmonic. Unlike the Bruckner, which stressed the great chordal masses of this splendid ensemble, the Mahler had plenty of room for first chair winds and brass (and of course tympani) to show their stuff. And while we had to wait over an hour for the Westminster Symphonic Choir to give this grandest of all climaxes, the wait was worthwhile. Under Joe Miller, this is a huge and brilliant ensemble–probably far too large for the preceding Wolf pieces–to offer the most exalted chords.

B. Fink (© Hyperion)

They were fortunate to have two fine soloists, but essentially it was mezzo Bernarda Fink whose orison was simple, awesome, with a prayer-like restraint.

Most questionable, though, were the preceding movements. Sir Simon obviously wanted to broaden out the opening death-march to the utmost. Rather than giving it an extra slow tempo, he insisted on retarding phrases, leaving empty pauses, attempting the effects of drama by...well, by hamming up the orchestra. Perhaps Gustav Mahler actually conducted it this way, since the times called for grandiose gestures. Sir Simon’s action, rather than giving it mystery, gave it an unnerving melodrama.

The second movement regained the pace with the most gorgeous low-string opening, and the folk movement was played straight, leading to the finale choral-vocal sections.

One might have disagreed with Sir Simon’s rather mannered opening, but the Berlin Philharmonic has lost none of its grandeur in this grandest of all late Romantic works Having attended only the final two nights, it was still obvious that for this next month of “great orchestra”, it would be difficult to challenge the primacy of this so great ensemble.

Harry Rolnick



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