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Strong Medicine

New York
Carnegie Hall
01/27/2002 -  
Alban Berg: Seven Early Songs
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 6 "Tragic"

Renee Fleming (soprano)
MET Orchestra
James Levine (conductor)

“…I explicitly diagnosed the satanic character
of this annihilating music…”

Julius Korngold in Neue Freie Presse

Before Leonard Bernstein popularized the symphonies of Gustav Mahler and made him into a household word in the 1960’s, performances of these masterworks were rare indeed. Even given the paucity of audience and critical curiosities on both sides of the Atlantic until this renaissance, opportunities to hear the Symphony # 6 were the sparsest of all. Premiered in Essen in 1906 (and therefore labeled the “Krupp Symphony” in the German press because of its percussive affinities with the local munitions maker), the 6th was not heard in America until 40 years later, under the baton of Dmitri Mitropoulos. Koussevitzky tried to mount a version in the ‘30’s but was told by Nazi archivists that all of the parts to this Jewish composition had been mysteriously lost “in a fire”. Racism may have accounted for this particular cancellation, but it is interesting to speculate as to why this stirring essay was kept out of the public arena for so long, especially when other Mahler pieces were introduced in New York and Cincinnati soon after their debuts in Europe. The silence was deafening more because of the emotional content of this troubled work than for any reasons of unfamiliar instrumental or harmonic vocabularies. Of all of Mahler’s symphonies, this is the only one that ends in the minor. There is no let-up in its pessimistic intensity, the second movement immediately taking on the wounded cry of the first in the same tragic key. The slow section, unlike that of the 5th, provides no comfort or refuge (Alma describes it as a father’s anxiety for his children) and the concluding metallic thuds of the giant hammer, specifically designed to further darken the overall sonority, foreshadow, bemoan or predict (depending on which Mahler myth one believes) the three great tragedies befalling the composer at the time (his firing from the Vienna Opera, the death of his daughter Putzi, and his diagnosis of terminal heart arrhythmia). Small wonder that it took the world some time to warm to this particular effort.

Opera is not my beat but if it were I would have to consult my Oxford English Dictionary on a regular basis to come up with new superlatives to describe Renee Fleming. Despite her popularity, Ms. Fleming is a very intelligent musician, gifted with the finest instrument in the world of vocal music today. Two aspects of her art were especially impressive in her performance of the Berg. First, she is able to husband her resources properly to be ready and able to deliver the big notes, for example in Die Nachtigall, with no obvious effort or strain and second, she actually understands what she is singing, reacting with both face and body as if in character on the MET stage. The orchestrated 7 songs are a bit of a hybrid, revealing Berg’s aesthetic both pre and post Schoenberg. The vocal lines are from the composer’s student days and sound very much like the young Richard Strauss. The instrumental parts were added 20 years later and reflect the klangfarben of the pantonal in the ear. Fleming’s mastery of the Viennese “beautiful dirt” style (she recently dazzled as Arabella at the MET) made these versions the best that I have ever experienced. Being able to thrill to Christine Schaefer and Renee Fleming each singing Berg in the same week was truly special for an old soldier of the twelve-tone wars.

What followed should have been a great performance of the Mahler. Levine continues to walk out to the podium more slowly than any of the octogenarians still active today, but at least he was able to stand for this performance. He certainly conducted with considerably more élan than he did for last season’s Mahler 9 and created an appropriate sense of tautness and relentless tension in movements one and two. The string playing was excellent throughout and resulted in a very moving and memorable Andante. Here the solo passages of concertmaster Nick Eanet were soaringly beautiful and principal hornist Julie Landsman, suffering through an uncharacteristically sloppy first half, intoned all of her crucial solo notes accurately, if not emotively. What haunted this reading as a whole, however, was the consistently inadequate play of trumpets and horns, fraught with broken notes, mistakes and a positively ugly ensemble sound, the unrelenting nature of the pounding first two movements made all the more unpleasant by its association with this irritating sonic behavior. I have too much respect for James Levine as a musician to believe that he could possibly be satisfied with this level of play; although no one likes to talk about this, it appears that he is just too tired to fight anymore. I don’t expect that it will be a tea party at his new position either.

The finale of the 6th is my least favorite movement in all of Mahler (then again, I don’t care much for Heldenleben either), but I don’t remember the hero having to battle this much bad intonation in performances past. Many audience members, undoubtedly there to hear Ms. Fleming, looked bored in this long section and Levine’s choice of low budget percussion effects did little to enliven the proceedings (one would think that the richest opera company in the world could afford a big hammer). That penultimate fortissimo chord woke up more than one dozing patron.

Less than two years ago, I heard a Mahler 6 with the Dresden Staatskappelle up the street at Avery Fisher led by a robust and vibrant Giuseppe Sinopoli. Maestro is no longer with us and I thought of him often during this unsatisfying performance. Remembering this extinguished firebrand reinforced Mahler’s thesis that whatever else may distract us along the way, the human condition is ultimately tragic.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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