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Two Funerals but No Wedding

New York
Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium
10/04/2019 -  
Jörg Widmann: Trauermarsch
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor

Yefim Bronfman (piano)
The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor)

F. Welser-Möst (© Roger Mastroianni)

“A death march at the beginning of a symphony?”
Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies
“The Fifth is a cursed work. No one comprehends it.”
Alma Mahler

Frau Mahler is correct. When one thinks of the Fifth Symphony, there are always questions about the relationships between the movements. The ersatz horn concerto that is the third movement, the lovely Adagietto for strings and harp that is the fourth, the rambling and ultimately incomprehensible last movement, more questions than answers, all lead to a wild, but not necessarily resolved, ride on the emotional supra-roller coaster. Delicious!

Mahler only conducted his Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 here, but Carnegie Hall will always be his house. This performance by the Clevelanders was a solid one, although ultimately not a particularly moving experience. Maestro Welser-Möst has come a long way since his days in London when he was christened “worse than most” and proceeded to lead a somewhat idiosyncratic performance but one with several hidden gems on public display. All worked reasonably well, although the famously haunting fourth movement lost a lot of its emotional zing by being performed in such a hurried rather than somberly contemplative manner.

I have heard at least twenty live versions of this symphony, but this was only the second that had the horn player up front for the entire third movement. Although this can be a thrilling acoustical move, the current player, Nathaniel Silberschlag, was, let us charitably say, rather phlegmatic in his approach. He spent quite a bit of his featured time drinking water – he reminded of a stage ventriloquist performing a classic if overused trick – and simply stood around in profile like a man waiting to be called to the front of a lineup of criminal suspects. The ending of the movement, so rich in measures for the horn, seemed a bit off center since Mr. Silberschlag did not participate. Rather he lingered, the horn poised to enunciate but silent throughout this conclusion. This was indeed Mahler’s intention, but comes off rather amateurishly when the hornist is exposed for all to see as simply standing around in profile – his instrument poised to perform yet again but never does. This vaudeville act undercut the good work being done by maestro and the rest of his forces.

Jörg Widmann is the occupant of the 2019-2020 composer’s chair at Carnegie Hall. As a result, many of his works will be featured throughout the season. His Trauermarsch (the connection to the Mahler work firmly established since the great composer began his stage instructions with the same word) seemed a bit precious since the assembled talents of the ensemble and Yefim Bronfman might have been a little bit of overkill. But where else could one see the serious Mr. Bronfman perform an arpeggio that ended with his almost falling off the piano bench? Alas, Victor Borge is long gone, otherwise he might have been a better interpreter of this painfully long funeral song.

As I grow older I am more than ever convinced that Mahler’s Fifth is the strangest of all symphonies. A varied collection of moods and images, it is a cornucopia of new possibilities. Even the Sixth cannot eclipse its phantasmagoric identity.

Fred Kirshnit



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