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Days Of Our Lives

New York
Carnegie Hall
11/28/2005 -  
Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks
Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 4

Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano)
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine (conductor)

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson… Lorraine Hunt Lieberson… Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Anywhere you go in this town, this is the number one topic of conversation. Ms. Lieberson successfully made the transition from occasional singer and soloist with orchestra to the hottest mezzo in town approximately 18 months ago, only to fall victim to illness and capitulate to a series of cancellations under doctor’s orders. However, what must have been a manager’s nightmare has turned into a publicist’s dream, as the woman’s very absence has made her a household name (at least in those houses where culture means more than the iPod and the television).

Mr. Lieberson is a relatively minor composer who seems to be very well connected to influential critics in the New York print media and is thus virtually guaranteed a rave notice for his efforts. The decision of his wife to forego the advice of her physician and perform in his new songs with the Boston Symphony under James Levine was greeted as heroic, superannuated romance. Something of a combination of Heloise and Audie Murphy, Ms. Lieberson arrived on the Carnegie stage amidst a rousing ovation.

All of this would be very easy to mock except that Ms. Lieberson is actually a fine musician. Her obvious dedication to strong musical principles has served her well in, for example, a terribly out of tune Christoph Eschenbach Mahler 3, where she simply ignored the instrumental equivocation surrounding her glorious intoning of the noble mezzo part. Her performance on Monday evening was excellent, with the caveat that it was painfully obvious that she was holding back a little, still not at her best physically. In a strange twist of fate, she is said to suffer the same lower back problems as Maestro Levine.

If only the Neruda Songs were more worthy of such inspired perspiration. They were fine, as far as they went, but were really five Broadway songs dressed up in sombreros and white dinner jackets. More suitable for the Boston Pops incarnation of this ensemble, they could someday anchor a “Fiesta Night” up on Massachusetts Avenue. For now, they reminded less of deFalla or Albeniz and more of Desi Arnaz.

Levine opened with a work that I swear he simply does not understand. Till Eulenspiegel is supposed to be funny, although few conductors get it right. Here in New York, for many years we had an expert in Kurt Masur, who understood the oxymoronic inner workings of a Teutonic joke, subtle and banal at the same time. For Levine, however, there is nothing amusing about this tone poem, it is rather a phantasmagoric, Berliozian walpurgisnacht. I suppose we must praise the BSO for being able to play so loudly and still be in tune, but no one should have to emote at such a high volume indoors.

All of this was simply prelude to the main work of the evening, the charming Symphony # 4 of Gustav Mahler. In the main, this was a decent reading, but, from a student of George Szell, I expected more. The second movement in particular was chaotic, the rest of the ensemble about three quarters of a beat behind the solo violinist, who was himself playing a half step out of tune as per the Mahler score. I don’t quite know if there is a musical term for lagging rhythm that corresponds to scordatura – syncopation is the best near equivalent – but the entire movement was just a little too far off kilter, even for fin-de-siecle Viennese funhouse mirror perspective. To be fair, the third movement was quite beautiful, maestro showing some of that old electricity mostly missing the remainder of the evening.

There was indeed a cancellation this night, but it was not Ms. Lieberson. The soprano in the fourth movement was scheduled to be Dorothea Roeschmann (it was she who attracted me to this particular concert), but when she demurred, local soprano Heidi Grant Murphy took over. Ms. Murphy was adequate, with an occasional touch of greatness, including a downward slide to die for that prompted a look and smile from Levine, but had, uncharacteristically, some difficulty projecting a proper volume. Overall, this was good Mahler, but not as much as we could get from Mr. Levine if his heart and mind were totally focused on the project. It is conceivable that the Lieberson songs took up a disproportionate amount of the rehearsal time appropriated for this particular program.

Just to end the note on the loving couples theme, we are now all waiting for January, when Simon Rattle brings his girlfriend to town to sing the same Mahler part with the Berlin Philharmonic. Maybe we are back to the world of television, although for us classical elitists, it is of the daytime variety.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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