The Problem Symphony
Avery Fisher Hall
Gustave Mahler/Alfredo Casella: Rondo-Finale from Symphony # 7
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 7
Pedja Muzijevic and Frederic Chiu (piano)
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)
The bizarre performance history of Mahler’s symphonies includes a steady waning of the popularity of the appellations which attached themselves to these works when they were new. Although the 2nd is still known as the “Resurrection”, it is now rare to hear such names as “Titan” (1), “Giant” (5), “Tragic” (6) or “Symphony of a Thousand” (8). “The Song of the Night” is still often associated with the mighty 7th Symphony but perhaps the nickname “Problem” might be more a propos of the critical reception which has haunted this life-affirming musical essay for over 90 years. A failure at its premiere, the 7th has laid its composer bare to charges of kappellmeisterism and even charlatanism and is, by far, the most misunderstood of his mature works for orchestra, even inspiring recent sophistry that the creation contains its own built-in avenues for raveling, thus making it a thesis on the nobility of failure. Much of this negative opinion is generated by the composer’s use of Schrammelmusik and other popular devices of fin-de-siecle Vienna but primarily the confusion lies, I think, in his critics’ lack of understanding that this work is really an essay on the nature of memory and is filled with passages which brilliantly recreate the phenomenon of recollection itself while infusing nostalgia into the very life-blood of the acoustical fabric of this extremely rich and complex musical tapestry. Add into the mix the critical profession’s distaste for the upbeat and the result has been a wall of scholarly (and not so scholarly) resistance surrounding Mahler’s own personal best, a symphonic rendering of Siegfried complete with the hero’s own journey from darkness into light (with the added similarity that the work is beloved by both young males and brass players). As the ultimate musical expression of déjà vu, this amazing masterwork is the perfect curtain raiser for the American Symphony Orchestra’s traversal of “Music and Memory” this concert season.
I am honor bound to mention that I composed the program notes for last evening’s concert but feel strongly that my critical objectivity has not been compromised in the least by this assignment.
It was not that many years ago that Leon Botstein introduced the concept of thematic programming to the classical concert world but now virtually every evening in New York, regardless of performer, has some coherence in its choices of material. In an interesting stroke of coupling, Botstein began his exploration of the mnemonic by presenting a rare four-hand version of the controversial finale of the 7th in an exceptionally athletic performance by two young pianists. This curtain raiser, evocative of that wonderful Welte-Mignon piano roll of Mahler himself performing the first movement of the 5th, immediately created in the audience’s collective mind the image of the movement as a memory which would comfortingly return during the main reading by the orchestra. It is daunting to think that this reduction was meant to be enjoyed by amateur pianists of the day and, in many spots, it was difficult to evaluate the performance since there seemed to be many wrong notes being played (these unique transcriptions often have a certain Victor Borge flair to them) but that is simply because this type of version must substitute one note for many in order to be auditorily translatable (and playable). Further, the inclusion of this movement allowed for the admission of the inevitable latecomers before the main event.
It was less understandable why, in a performance meant to emphasize the idea of memory, the opening, crucial tenorhorn solo, meant by its rough timbre to evoke the childhood love of the composer for military band music, was played on the more “acceptable” euphonium, an orchestral instrument with a smooth sound perhaps best known for its featuring passages in Holst’s The Planets. Very jarring to a Mahlerite ear, when the player botched the solo’s reprise it seemed poetic justice. The rest of the movement was fine indeed, the entire section after the caesura reveling in the sheer wonder of its own complexity, the last 49 measures as dense as any prior to Schoenberg. I have heard many live versions of this piece but this one was by far the best, Botstein revealing virtually every inner voice in the percussion and brass and presiding over an exciting cacophony rivaling the contemporary (but probably unknown to Mahler) scores of Charles Ives.
Intonation problems haunted the next two movements and neither fulfilled the potential of this orchestra to reach the center of a work. The Andante amoroso, however, was another matter, the group finding just the right mood and sustaining this sunny yet slightly askew vision of Mediterranean summer evenings. Particularly beautiful was the duet between cello and horn, the brass instrument rightly and unusually adopting a bowing type of phrasing line so that when the stringed instrument dropped out the melodic thread remained unbroken (this was undoubtedly the composer’s intent but is a very rare treat to hear after so many wrongheaded recordings). In fact, the horns were exceptional throughout, as was the playing of the first chair string players. I would have wished to hear the guitar but it was buried deep in the orchestra (the mandolin has enough shrillness to survive this interment) and remember that Boulez when in New York used to sit the two fellows up front like soloists to emphasize the strolling street aspect of this most inspired of Mahler’s orchestrations. But Professor Botstein and his cohorts really did nail this particular mood and the applause, which dogged each and every movement, did not seem so out of place at this particular juncture.
The featured finale was less exciting in its orchestral guise than in its piano reduction and this made for a disconcerting end to the proceedings. The ASO are intrepid explorers of the dangerous fringes of the repertoire and are perhaps not the ideal group to play the more familiar. Still they are to be applauded (and were quite vigorously) for their efforts. All in all, this was a decent reading of the 7th, but not one, I suspect, that will live too long in the memory.
Frederick L. Kirshnit