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The Titan and the Temperate

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/24/2010 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony Number 1 in D Major (“The Titan”) – Symphony No. 4 in G

Anastasia Kalagina (Soprano)
Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Music Director and Conductor)

A. Kalagina (© Mariinsky Theater)

How misconceived are the images of Gustav Mahler, yet how acceptably they were redressed this afternoon at the final concert of the Mariinsky Mahler cycle.

Like Franz Kafka, the image of Mahler is of a genius as tortured as he was inspired, a figure both psychoanalyzed and spiritualized. And true enough, they both had their tragic masterworks. But just as Kafka wrote one wonderfully gentle whimsical novel, Amerika, Mahler wrote two symphonies which emanated, if not whimsicality, an inner tranquility love of nature, and that oft-misused word, serenity.

Both were presented for this concert, and Valery Gergiev showed a cool, clearheaded composure. He could be literally hopping on the dais for the third movement of the First Symphony, or made that Promethean single chord of the Fourth Symphony third movement radiate around the hall. But in each of the symphonies, he presented a unified picture of the inner artist at work.

It was difficult to choose which was more impressive. The Fourth had the advantage of a most unique soprano in the finale. The First , though, was a dream of youth, with one movement which perhaps only Mr. Gergiev could produce.

Dwelling in an inner peace, Mahler was hardly a vegetarian, and his opening abounded in joyful hunting calls as well as bird calls. (Just as the finale of the Fourth called platters of rabbit and venison!) The motion was easy (Mahler called for a Schleppend pace, but Mr. Gergiev hardly shlepped his orchestra). He was hardly averse to the long retards, but the momentum of the orchestra didn’t flag. The following country dance bounced along with good spirits, and the military turn was obviously an artifice.

That third movement, though, that renowned mock funeral (its only predecessor being Mozart’s Musical Joke) is as ethnic as anything Mahler ever wrote. I once read an essay about Mahler’s Jewish influences, but nothing is so blatantly Polish-Jewish as this movement.

Gergiev, by the way, is of Ossetian, not Russian heritage, so the East European side is more exotic than urban. Mahler was a most urbane artist, but his background was Czech, so that East European side also came out here. And while some conductors play down the humor, Maestro Gergiev let the bouncy yiddische music jump and rebound; the klezmer clarinet wasn’t a clarinet parody: it was shrill but always musical.

Written before Mahler made his titular conversion to Catholicism, this was Fiddler On The Roof playing at it most effusive, leading the way to a more conventional but still exciting finale. (After such a week, the French horn fluffs were forgivable.)

The Fourth Symphony had the right composure. No, the Mariinsky has nothing near the radiance of some other American or European orchestras. But the Mariinsky, like the poetry of the last movement, has an earthy more human aura, and Maestro Gergiev let it sing for itself.

Soprano Anastasia Kalagina, a stalwart of the Mariinsky Theater, was not your ordinary soprano. The voice was less ethereal than avian. It was light, it fluttered, it was gentle in the middle section, but took wing in the high registers. It was not everybody’s idea of a glorious soprano, but such a unique voice is unforgettable.

At the end of the Symphony, Maestro Gergiev held the silence for at least a minute, and the audience respected his wishes. After this Mahler week, that was less a musical direction than a well-deserved musical orison.

Harry Rolnick



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