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Casting The First Stone

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/19/2002 -  
HK Gruber: Frankenstein!!
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 5

HK Gruber (chansonnier)
Philadelphia Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

“…a jumble of sounds lacking any kind of musical logic…more disconcerting and repellent than pleasurable…”

Paul Hiller, on the premiere of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony

Although he would have never admitted this, even to himself, Gustav Mahler spent his entire mature life attempting to write a symphony that would be hailed by both critics and public alike as a masterpiece. His several radical stylistic changes were prompted, at least subconsciously, by the general rejection of his orchestral essays. As an opera director, he was used to the arbitrary judgments of the critical community (the same scorpions who excoriated him in Hamburg for taking liberties with Fidelio also condemned him for his slavish fealty to the scores of Mozart) and staggered precariously under their weight although, ironically, it was the endorsement of the dean of them all, Eduard Hanslick, which landed Mahler his dream position at the Vienna Opera. The reception for his fresh compositions was even more hostile than for his new productions, and not just in the anti-Semitic press. The First Symphony was understood by no one, and the fusillade of negativism that it engendered made Mahler unsure of its musical value throughout the rest of his life. The 2nd was a hit with the public but the critics found it overblown and manipulative. When, years before the first performance of the symphony as a whole, Weingartner conducted the charming minuet from the 3rd in Berlin, the crowd applauded so warmly that Mahler had to leave his seat in the audience and take a bow, only to return to his place and recoil in horror as the magnificent Adagio was then roundly booed. Feeling the pinch of the public’s reaction to his “excesses”, the composer regrouped and fashioned the gentle and quiet Fourth Symphony as an antidote. Its debut was so demonstrably disliked that Mahler sent the soprano out for her solo bow at the end without him.

Since radicalism was leading him nowhere, perhaps conservatism was in order. Mahler now consciously went back to basics, restudying the works of J.S. Bach and vicariously relearning the standard art of composition through his fiancée Alma Schindler, who was studying with Alexander von Zemlinsky at the time. The Fifth Symphony became the first in a trilogy that contains no singing and conforms to architectural principles hallowed since Beethoven. Although the piece exhibits a bridge structure that was a bit complex for audiences in 1904, its huge orchestra and persona of the hero were positively trendy in a city that had espoused the works of Richard Strauss. And yet many critics couldn’t stand this amazingly high energy, brassy symphony, reserving their lukewarm praise only for the lovely Adagietto for Harp and Strings that is its fourth movement. Small wonder that when Mahler penned the 7th a few seasons later, he put it away in a drawer for four years, not at all enthusiastic about steering its maiden voyage.

HK Gruber is a grandfatherly sort who performs with orchestra roughly in the same manner as Danny Kaye used to fifty years ago. He has fashioned a series of short songs for children and grouped them together in a delightful, if somewhat popsy, pastiche. Except that the children are Bertolt Brecht and Franz Kafka and the overwhelming mood is the seedy and macabre, this could be a work, complete with instruments of childhood, for the Disney orchestra. Two images from my youth come to mind: Boris Karloff narrating Peter and the Wolf and Hans Conried doing voiceovers for Jay Ward’s “Fractured Fairy Tales”. The poems are right out of the most disturbing of the Grimm tradition and the certifiable persona of Gruber as ancient mariner is as unsettling as a lecherous clown at a child’s birthday party. It all seemed just a little out of place at Carnegie, and yet so does the best of Kurt Weill.

Insiders tell me that the Philadelphia players love and respect Sir Simon much more than they do recent music director designate Eschenbach. It certainly shows in their live performances for this wizard and, beginning our story at its conclusion, it is very impressive to watch him go into the ensemble and stand next to the solo hornist and trumpeter in turn as a special acknowledgement of their contributions. Overall, this Mahler 5 was thrilling and well executed, the relentless second movement, into which Rattle plunged without pause, as intense as I have ever experienced. Splashes of color were also notable. The pizzicato string trio of the third movement, with the viola much more pronounced and ghoulish, was revealingly reminiscent of this same composer’s death fiddle in the 4th Symphony. The Great Wall of Strings prevented our observing any of the prodigious activities of the horn and trumpet sections (I am told that this ensemble does occasionally employ risers, however I have seen them at least 50 times live in various cities and not once have I ever been able to watch the doings of wind or brass players), but there was quite a bit of interesting klangfarben interplay going on back there.

Inertia and the Vienna Philharmonic being in New York this past weekend kept me from hearing this performance in Philadelphia. I might have been better served had I made the journey, however, as the ensemble seemed a bit tired this night after having presented this demanding piece on three previous evenings. Certainly it was unrealistic to expect the soloist to perform his ersatz horn concerto flawlessly (his lip must have been the consistency of raw hamburger at the finish) and I suspect that some of the life force of the group was tempered by ennui and exhaustion for this end of the run reading. There is considerable evidence that Mahler took the adagietto at a very brisk pace but, in the best Mahlerian tradition of interpretive freedom, I object strenuously to this fast tempo. For me, this incredible movement with its echoes of Tristan must be performed slowly and lovingly. Rattle’s version seemed simply tossed off and not just in speed. There did not appear to be a cultivation of intensity, a build-up of emotive power. The rondo-finale was suitably exciting, a bouncing ball of stillborn counterpoint, the proper handling of which being Mahler’s most embarrassing lacuna (odd for a pupil of Bruckner), but this impish maestro turning the fits and starts into colorfully combative statements. Maybe not the best Rattle performance of my listening career, but still an invigorating night and one to savor: it may be a while before he comes back to the States after wrapping himself in the splendor of that Berlin silk.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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