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The Fischer King

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
12/11/2001 -  
Robert Schumann: Cello Concerto
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 5

Lynn Harrell (cello)
New York Philharmonic
Ivan Fischer (conductor)

“You need to be aware right from the start that works of this sort need time to win over the public, and are certainly unlikely to have immediate success.”

Gustav Mahler, letter to his publisher, September 27, 1904

After the failure of the Fourth Symphony, Mahler consciously began to compose in a new style. His next three efforts are more conventional in form and instrumentation (there is no singing whatsoever) and his influences reached back to The Art of the Fugue of Bach and the vicarious relearning of basic composition that he accomplished with his sweetheart and soon-to-be wife, Alma Schindler, who was a composition student of Alexander von Zemlinsky. The Symphony # 5, whose only peccadillo is its five movement bridge structure (later a favorite of Bartok), is in many ways the most mainstream of all of Mahler's works. The composer writes a false beginning to a concerto-like movement when he fashions the second side of his bridge as an ersatz concertante piece for horn and orchestra. The third movement is a full-fledged horn concerto (actually the solo part is shared by two different horns) that is constructed as an obbligato and, after a movement for strings and harp, the horn proclaims in a fanfare that the concerto will return. It however does not. Here the horn represents a flash of instantaneously lost memory.

The remarkable Adagietto for Strings and Harp that is the fourth movement is a heartfelt memory with the emotions of love and loss intertwined. After three movements dominated by loud brass (the first side of the bridge), we feel safe in the arms of pure string sound and this quiet, thoughtful rhapsodizing kept Mahler's music alive as a stand alone piece in the dark days of the 1920's through 1950's when his music was only performed by a few dedicated friends and associates. The movement was written as a love song for Schindler, who would have easily recognized the quotations from Tristan und Isolde, but who also was aware of the combination of love and sorrow which is, in the final analysis, the essence of Mahler. There has been an amusing controversy over the past fifty years as to whether this movement is a love song or a dirge and an individual conductor often makes a choice in his selection of tempi and phrasing that identifies him with one camp or the other. Leonard Bernstein, the great popular champion of Mahler's music and the individual most responsible for his acceptance today, weighed in heavily on the funereal side when he conducted the piece on television after the death of Robert Kennedy. Actually there should be no argument as this profound statement is both a romance and an elegy. Bruno Walter, the composer's assistant and confidante for the years of turmoil in Vienna, expressed that Mahler's genius was his ability to …make the tragic beautiful and the beautiful tragic. As a memory the Adagietto is the quintessence of the bittersweet and its mixture of passion and decay made it the perfect accompaniment to Lucchino Visconti's image of Aschenbach in the film Death in Venice (there is even a line of scholarship that sees Mahler as the model for Mann's tragic hero).

Last evening’s performance of this huge work was thrilling. Ivan Fischer made the most of his week as a guest conductor, leading a rendition notable for its high energy, brisk enunciation and brilliant array of tonal color. The funeral march was appropriately somber and ceremonial, the sforzando after the opening fanfare viscerally earcatching, the attacks of the brass consistently crisp and clean. Fischer was especially impressive in the second movement, where his instinctive ability to phrase with just the slightest inclusion of dramatic pauses let some romantic air into the strictures of the rhythm. The overall combination of tight winds and brass, intensely controlled strings and exciting percussion raised the electricity level to high voltage on the stage and produced a corresponding reaction in the crowd. So much genuine emotion was exposed in this reading that one felt positively drained at its conclusion.

Phil Myers led his horn section in a fabulous traversal of the complex third movement, the bells-up back chairs providing major support for the obbligato of the alternating soloists. Fischer did an excellent job of keeping the bouncing melody moving catlike throughout the orchestra, making the background to the “concerto” as vibrant as the featured instrumental line. Through sheer force of will, he molded this sometime recalcitrant ensemble into a finely honed concert instrument, unleashing their power without exposing any of their often ragged intonational habits. Having matured just down the Danube from Vienna, this Hungarian found it second nature to inoculate the orchestra with a delicate Austrian lilt, so often missing from other Mahler performances. Myers was particularly musical in the more poignant soft phrases which open the velvet door for the Adagietto to come, his ability to progress from insistent loud staccato to lyrical soft legato communicating that uniquely Mahlerian combination of charm and pathos.

Although it was difficult to tell which side of the love/death debate was more comfortable for Mr. Fischer, it was easy to see where he stood on the tempo controversy in the fourth movement. He decidedly prefers the fast approach attributed to the composer himself. Although the evidence as to Mahler’s own tempo is circumstantial, it is certainly true that both Walter (his assistant) and Mengelberg (his closest conductorial friend) led this section at a brisk pace. However, the score is marked “very slow” and I personally prefer a more measured account with time for “lump in the throat” (although some would say “heart on the sleeve”) pauses. In any event, Fischer’s fast version was exquisitely played by a string section which proved that it can perform in a sensitive manner when properly motivated.

With no pause whatsoever, this prestidigitator launched an expansive finale, taut and exciting, brittle and exposed. Here one experiences the fruits of the composer’s fresh study of Bach, fugal passages constantly trying to emerge from the orchestral placenta only to be reborn in other directions. As this ending structure matures, the counterpoint becomes denser, finally blossoming as a completed round of triumph (Mahler uses this device, in small and large doses, throughout his career). Again, the ensemble was brilliant and the last pounding rhythms ushered in waves of spontaneous and sustained applause by an obviously moved audience. This roller-coaster ride was supercharged; I have never heard the New York Philharmonic play any better.

The evening began with a delicate and lovely reading of the Schumann concerto by a true artist conspicuously absent from New York for many years. Lynn Harrell has a gentle conception of this work, preferring quiet descriptions of flowers to robust evocations of stormclouds. The resulting partnership with a quite small orchestra was charming and Mr. Harrell’s impressive style of play showed no ill effects from his years as an academic in Britain. He is back home now and that is welcome news for local concert-goers.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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