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What Might Have Been

New York
Carnegie Hall
05/13/2009 -  
Gustav Mahler: Songs of a Wayfarer – Symphony No. 7
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Thomas Hampson

What is the most important work of music given its world premiere in America? The Piano Concerto No. 1 of Tchaikovsky (Boston)? The ”New World” Symphony (New York)? The Violin Concerto of Arnold Schoenberg (Philadelphia)? Fodder for a lively debate.

But if the question is what is the greatest work that almost had its premiere in America, then the Symphony No. 7 of Gustav Mahler has to be accorded pride of place. The new conductor at Carnegie Hall seriously toyed with the idea of launching his most bizarre creation as part of his inaugural year with the New York Philharmonic, but an almost paralyzing tentativeness, engendered by several less than successful maiden voyages of other works, led him to opt for Prague instead, Mahler frantically finishing the orchestral parts on the very evening of the performance with the assistance of the young Alban Berg. As part of his comprehensive survey, Daniel Barenboim led ”The Song of the Night” on Wednesday evening at Carnegie Hall.

The Seventh is not quite long enough to occupy an entire concert, so Mr. Barenboin included a curtain raiser. Sadly, Thomas Hampson seemed disengaged throughout much of the first three Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, finally resorting to a tepid falsetto, which quickly fell into disrepair, for the final number. The Berlin Staatskapelle followed suit with a lackluster accompaniment.

The performance of the symphony itself was, as Mr. Barenboim himself often is, frustratingly inconsistent. The fatuous decision to replace Mahler’s edgy tenorhorn, whose early solos establish the schizophrenic mood of the piece, with the smoother sounding euphonium resulted in the first part of the opening movement seeming prettified. But once this faux pas was relegated to an unpleasant memory, the remainder of the movement was fine, Mr. Barenboim rallying his troops to shine in those final 49 measures, some of the most complex music – especially considering the melodic role of the large percussion section – ever written.

Last week for the Third Symphony, the solo horn and the horn section as a whole were surprisingly weak and in the second movement this evening they were simply an embarrassment, turning Mahler’s ceremonial Night Watch into a stumbling ramble. However, the third movement was interesting and reasonably well executed, as Mr. Barenboim eschewed the disjointed and dotted rhythms in favor of a rather off-kilter swirling that was, in its own way, as emblematic of the neurasthenia of the times.

That magnificent Andante amoroso was the highlight of the evening. The guitarist and the mandolin player were seated in the second row right in front of the conductor and were not simply violists who picked up exotic instruments for this one movement. Particularly satisfying was that one could hear every soft note of the guitar, including the morendo final passage. The woodwinds were quite thrilling, especially in their naked ending statements.

The finale was a bit ordinary, speedy but not terribly exciting. One measure of this strange piece is the instantaneous crowd reaction. For a great performance, there should be an immediate, almost Pavlovian, roar of approval. Although the crowd was generous with its applause, it was not of the ecstatic variety.

I know, I know. The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, premiered in Baltimore in 1934, may be a better work than any of them.

Fred Kirshnit



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