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Third Time Not a Charm

New York
Carnegie Hall
05/08/2009 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 3
Michelle DeYoung (mezzo)
Women of the Westminster Symphonic Choir, American Boychoir, Staatskapelle Berlin, Pierre Boulez (conductor)

Michelle DeYoung (© Christian Steiner)

Last year at dinner, the great biographer Henry-Louis De La Grange told me that his 2011 was almost completely booked, as there will be hundreds of festivals commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of Gustav Mahler. No one has devoted more of his life to the study of this unique composer; in fact the professor pointed out that he has now spent more years involved with this fascinating life than Mahler himself. While waiting for the big year, there is still much to do, this week in New York, as Daniel Barenboim brings his Staatskapelle Berlin to Carnegie Hall to present the ten Mahler symphonies in ten nights. After a kickoff event featuring De La Grange, the sequence of concerts has commenced. Barenboim has enlisted a colleague, Pierre Boulez, to lead the nights devoted to the symphonies that include singing, and I popped in on the third to take the temperature of the proceedings.

The Third Symphony is the first where Mahler uses the persona of the child to crystallize his intense feelings about the loss of innocence and man's regression away from the natural state. With childlike titles for the movements such as "What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me" and "What the Cuckoo Tells Me", the composer recalls the eighteenth century British tradition of the innocent child and his direct connection with nature (imagine, for example, Gainsborough's The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly). This recollection is a Victorian convention (compare the perceptions of the dying child culminating in the chapter "What The Waves Were Always Saying" from Dickens' superb Dombey and Son) and would not have seemed overly sentimental to a fin-de-siecle audience. The fifth movement features boys' chorus singing a marvelously life-affirming song of the angels, an effect repeated in the mighty Symphony #8. Like a sensitive Romantic song, Schumann's Sehnsucht nach der Waldgegend (Nostalgia for the Woodlands) comes to mind, Mahler's view of nature is filtered through the memories of childhood.

Sadly, Mr. Boulez has undergone a devolution in his treatment of the Mahler symphonies, moving from a rather emotional leader in the 1970’s with such ensembles as the BBC Symphony to a contemporary consciousness dedicated to expunging all of the feeling in this most heart-on-sleeve of composers. This – to be charitable – Apollonian approach might work if its execution were superb. Alas, the only facet of this current performance that mitigated its dullness was its sloppiness.

Quite literally, there was not a single high trumpet note in this entire evening that was delivered satisfactorily, the reality being either cracked or flatted. The horns did not fare much better and the result was fascinating in a slow down to view a car wreck sort of manner. Often there were lapses in coordination and rhythmic precision.

Not all of this reading was bad. The offstage posthorn solo was very moving. The singing, by and large, was fine. Michelle DeYoung projected her warm mezzo voice with great clarity and even some seemingly out of place dramatic power. The kids were fine in the “bimm, bamm” section, but, as a fellow critic pointed out afterwards, their youthful exuberance did not quite fit this conductor’s cold fish approach. Mr. Boulez launched some impressive manoeuvres, especially controlling the dynamics expertly in the final movement, but it was much too little, much too late.

Oh well, every orchestra has a bad night. I’ll be back next week for Barenboim and the Seventh.

Fred Kirshnit



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