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New York
Carnegie Hall
02/28/2001 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach (arr. Mahler): Suite
Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantata BWV 199
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 4

Emma Kirkby (soprano)
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Sir Roger Norrington (conductor)

Mahler’s first complete essay on memory (the others being the later song cycles Kindertotenlieder and Das Lied von der Erde and the Symphony #9) is the gentle Symphony #4. The process of the creation of this lovely piece is worthy of consideration. He began its composition with an already completed finale, excised from the previous symphony. 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 which 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 more quiet sonic world than those which he had previously inhabited. The orchestra for the fourth is very small by the elephantine standards of the early 1900's and required little from its brass (there are not even any parts for trombone). From the first notes, played by the 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.

After the peaceful memories of the first movement Mahler confronts us with recollections more disquieting. This unusual section is subtitled "Friend Death Comes to Call" and features a device itself borrowed from an earlier period of music history, the scordatura (deliberately mistuned) solo violin of the Italian Baroque concerto. This is an eerie effect both aurally and visually as the concertmaster plays alternately on two separate violins, his own tuned normally and the "death fiddle" pitched a half step higher than the rest of the orchestra (I once attended a performance of this symphony where many of the other violinists were staring in disbelief at the bizarre sounds coming from their leader). Here the thoughts are more disturbing and yet strangely sympatico (it is "friend death" after all) and recall the paintings of the Austrian Secession, especially those of the composer's friend Gustav Klimt, who painted shrouded skeletons embracing bounteous naked maidens. The movement musically is a contrast between the dotted rhythm and the smooth lyrical line (Schubert is once again the inspiration) and Mahler emphasizes this quality by evoking memory. Early in the movement there is a disjointed phrase for the stings whose herky-jerky quality should be emphasized. The woodwinds recall this phrase often in passing flashes of clarity and when eventually the phrase is repeated it is now altered: the woodwinds continue to play in the dotted rhythm but the strings play in a broadly lyrical and flowing manner that not only makes us think of the original version of the music as a memory but prepares us for the most fluid lines in all of Mahler, the gorgeous string music of the next movement. George Szell was the master of this contrast but unfortunately many conductors miss such an important subtlety and much of the inner meaning of this remarkable work is lost as a result.

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 harder to bring to the surface (some of these Mahlerian jewels take many listenings to reveal themselves). A glorious fanfare introduces the familiar child persona and her tale of otherworldly delight. Interestingly, this beautiful symphony, exactly 100 years old today, was a colossal failure at its premiere (Mahler sent the soprano out for her encore bow without him, the boos far outnumbering the cheers), as the idiom now so familiar was in 1901 quietly revolutionary.

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s is concentrating this season on presenting works in their original size, that is, they are endeavoring to approximate the actual number of orchestral players that would have been present at the creation of each of their featured pieces. The smaller ensemble that they produced for their all Brahms concert in the fall under music director Charles Mackerras was fascinatingly revelatory, the clean, clear lines just perfect for the masculine thoughts of the Hamburg master. Not to be confused with a period instrument group, St. Luke’s steadfastly clings to modern instrumentation, but tempers it with a healthy dose of reductionism. With Roger Norrington at the helm, however, there is much more tinkering going on. In his pre-concert talk, Sir Roger tried to justify his aesthetic for us all. He focused on vibrato (he is against it) and tried to make a case for Mahler’s distaste for adding emotion through vibration (anyone who has heard the Welte-Mignon piano roll of the composer performing his own Symphony # 5 at the piano, with tremendously exciting tremolo, knows what sophistry this is). If one views Norrington as an empirical scientist, than this is an interesting if misguided way of performing the works of the fin-de-siecle. Certainly he had a fine orchestra with which to experiment, far outshining our more famous New York Phil, and yet the results were mixed at best.

The faces of the string players of this outstanding band told the whole story. Straining not to vibrate their left hands at all, several of them had a distinct “hey, it’s not our fault” look about them. I zeroed in on one cellist who was in my line of sight and watched her struggle all evening against all of her training and natural instincts, dutifully stating the normally exquisite main theme of the third movement as if she were reciting an elocution exercise. Sir Roger has trained his troops to play it his way, however, he neglected to challenge their thespian abilities (he himself is a master of this craft) and their true feelings shone through. The concertmistress had no chance to shine in the death fiddle section because of the abhorrently brisk tempi, her struggle to just keep up a microcosm of that of her colleagues. As a devoted Mahlerite, I have to admit that I was interested in this version, rather like looking at cells under a microscope, but “enjoy” is not a word that I would use to describe the experience.

In his dogged pursuit of “authenticity”, I suppose that Maestro would have preferred it if we all booed at the end of the main work, but mildly polite applause seemed to be just as telling and appropriate. Norrington did do some things very well: the antiphonal nature of the orchestra with the first and second violins separated at opposite ends of the stage was enhanced by trumpets and horns placed diametrically apart and this produced some exciting auditory effects (punctuated by Norrington’s pointing gestures). His is the soul of the educator and it is hard to fault him for that. He even got the dotted versus smooth section correct (and expounded on same, to my infinite delight, in his lecture). Luckily for him, the players really responded musically to his approach. In less talented hands, this would have been a disastrous night.

Faithfulness to the printed score was never an axiom for Mahler the conductor. His famous productions of Mozart operas in Vienna, considered by many to be the greatest in performance history, were often pastiches of other arias (including, in at least one instance, a showstopper by Rossini) that the director deemed more dramatically or musically satisfying than the originals suggested by the composer. Instrumentally, his “retuchen” were usually less radical (with the notable exception of the symphonies of Schumann) and, in the case of Bach, he simply fashioned a modern orchestral suite using materials from two individual, and in the opinion of their original creator, interchangeable works for chamber ensemble. As a statement akin to his Fourth Symphony about the purity of tone inherent in a smaller orchestra, the then director of the New York Philharmonic premiered this symphonic reshuffling at Carnegie Hall in 1910, himself performing at the harpsichord (although St. Luke’s, true to their modern in period guise philosophy, used a piano). What came through loud and clear was Mahler’s symphonic conception of these bleeding chunks, now arranged to follow a more coherent pattern of key changes. The only “modern” touch was in the dynamics (with which Norrington admitted being very uncomfortable). A curiosity of performance history which I would love to hear again some day, but next time played with just a soupcon of emotion if you please.

The cantata was in many ways the most radical performance of the evening. Sir Roger has a decided clerical look about him and it was easy to imagine him a zealous Reformation minister, banishing all feelings from the proceedings as sure as if they were the spawn of the devil himself. A group of just 13 musicians (you could tell that this wasn’t a Schoenberg orchestration) stated note after note in the flattest manner possible (not, of course, in the sense of pitch) and very quickly gave me a reminder of why I avoid organized religion. In an inspired “in joke”, St. Luke was the author of the text (he is also a character in the child’s view of heaven), but this was certainly the only humor to be found this night. All that I can report about Emma Kirkby is that she has a strong soprano, her faithfulness to the aesthetic du jour eliminating any considerations of beauty or emotive power. I am intrigued to hear her again sometime without these battlefield conditions.

I reflected all evening about the Norrington problem. I decided consciously that this type of musical detective work is worthy of our interest and attention. But subconsciously, I am not so sure. I must have drifted off for a while on the subway ride home, for I distinctly remember entering the magic theater of Hermann Hesse, looking for Sir Roger the way the Steppenwolf searches for Mozart. When I found the conductor’s dressing room, I hastened to approach, hoping to discuss his thoughts further, but was put off by the sign out front. It read:


Frederick L. Kirshnit



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