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Our Little Girl is All Grown Up

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/18/2018 -  & January 10, 11, 2018 (Amsterdam)
Max Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major

Janine Jansen (violin)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Daniele Gatti (conductor)

J. Jansen

“A semantic analysis showed that Mahler symbolized inferno and paradiso with musical motifs borrowed from Liszt’s Dante Symphony and Wagner’s Parsifal.”
Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies

I like to think that I was the first in New York to recognize the talents and precocity of Janine Jansen when she debuted here at the age of 21 in the year 2000. It was clear that she was about to capture the classical music world and she did so quite adroitly and charmingly. This is her year at Carnegie Hall and she has been scheduled in many different roles and very diverse pieces. With her hometown orchestra she has chosen an ancient but still spry warhorse, the Max Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1.

Ms. Jansen handled her 1707 Stradivarius “Rivaz, Baron Gutmann” violin very adroitly, impressing with her accuracy but not reaching an emotional center very often. Rather the piece sounded rather mechanical, dancing around but not ever arriving at the sweet spot of melting humanity. The whole, rather than the sum of its parts, seemed desiccated, a laboratory specimen rather than a living, breathing entity. This reviewer was very disappointed.

I have often heard concertgoers describe Bruch’s music as Jewish even though he was the son of a prominent Protestant minister. When on the same program this concerto is contrasted with the third movement of the Mahler 1, the description is ridiculous on its face.

Mahler’s Symphony #1 contains an homage to his mentor. The trio section of the second movement is quoted almost verbatim from the similar section (identical in structural function) of the third movement of the Symphony #3 of Anton Bruckner, his avuncular inspiration at the University of Vienna. Mahler fashioned a version of this symphony for piano four-hands (fellow student Rudolf Krzyzanowski actually did the fourth movement) as a consolatory gift to the Linz maestro after the disastrous world premiere of the piece. Fond of saying “our time will yet come”, Mahler envisioned a world of the future where his symphonies and those of his mentor would be a part of the standard repertoire (his juxtaposition of Austrian peasant music with searingly serious thematic material was also learned from Bruckner).

Additionally, the amazing third movement recalls, perhaps imprudently in anti-Semitic Austria-Hungary, the Klezmer music of the shtetl, and also quotes from his own “Wayfarer” song Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved). In this song the protagonist encounters a lime tree (Lindenbaum) “...where I first found peace in sleep.” Any informed music lover would have easily recognized that this is indeed the Lindenbaum of Schubert’s great song cycle Winterreise (A Winter’s Journey) where the hero “...would have found rest.” This particular song (actually entitled Der Lindenbaum) from the cycle is one of the prime examples of Romantic insertion into the music of the phenomenon of memory. Mahler juxtaposes the rhythms of the Trauermarsch with the melody of his lied to leave one with the impression, identical with that of the Schubert, that the hero’s resting place under the Linden tree is in fact his grave.

Once one of our sons performed in a presentation of the Mahler Symphony No. 2 here in New York on a Sunday afternoon. When it was over, we wanted to take him for a celebratory lunch. He had to decline, as the maestro had demanded five hours of re-recording that day to spruce up the CD to come. I would imagine that Signor Gatti will require a similar studio sojourn before this issue is unveiled for the public.

This is only the second season for this new conductor, so some slack needs to be cut for him. It’s not that this was a bad performance, although it was indeed a highly disappointing one, but so many spots needed polishing that one felt a bit used, as if these players were simply not ready for prime time. Since the Concertgebouw is legendary for its superb performances, this particular experience was heavily disappointing. There were some good moments, like the very ghostly ending of movement three, but overall this was just plain unacceptable for an orchestra of such world repute. Sometimes the relationship of orchestra and conductor simply needs time to percolate. This may be one of those times.

But not having his horns stand for the final part of the finale (explicitly called for in the score) was simply stubbornly willful of Gatti. They instead held their instruments up in a line parallel to their mouths – the technical term is “bells up” – but this didn’t do at all. Overall the evening was a major slog. Last week, while reviewing the Budapest Festival Orchestra, I mentioned that I was not ready to present that exceptional group with the crown of best performance of the season, but I am much closer to presenting that encomium to them after this multi-flawed effort.

Nicknames tend to fall by the wayside over time, but the loss of Mahler’s christening this symphony as the “Titan” tends to obscure his intention to describe a Herculean battle with the gods of his fourth movement. Thankfully, the music itself makes the point strongly: this is conflict on a grand scale.

Historically, the Concertgebouw enjoyed a very close kinship with Mahler, much stronger than either his Vienna or New York orchestras. When the Symphony No. 4 was new, conductor Willem Mengelberg scheduled it for the first half of a concert and then, after intermission, conducted it again, now much more familiar to the crowd. A masterstroke.

Fred Kirshnit



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