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When Mahler Turns Editor

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center Complex
12/06/2010 -  
Anton Webern: Passacaglia, Op. 1
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, K. 364
Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 120 (Arranged by Gustav Mahler)

Sheryl Hwangbo (Violin), Elzbieta Weyman (Viola)
Juilliard Orchestra, Xian Zhang (Conductor)

X. Zhang (© Juilliard School)

Was this a fool’s errand? I had previously heard only one of Gustav Mahler’s “editing” jobs. It was a desolate experience. He had remixed two Johann Sebastian Bach suites, re-orchestrated them, and like magic, transmuted Bach’s frothy gavottes and airs into a musty dusty room cluttered with antimacassars, over-stuffed Ottomans and archaic Habsburg bric-à-brac.

Oh, I thought, when hearing it, where are the kitschy technicolor transformations of Stokowski and Ormandy. Even Webern’s Ricercare might have been loved by the fastidious Bach. Not Mahler’s dated charnel.

So what would he do with Schumann’s Fourth Symphony? We all know the platitudes that Schumann was a pianist, not an orchestrator. But he did have his ideas and Germanic vitality. Would Mahler turn enthusiasm into musical euthanasia?

The Juilliard School Orchestra, conducted by the very dynamic Xian Zhang, gave the Symphony their best. I had seen no score for the Mahler edition, but was told that various wind combinations were changed around to suit the editor’s taste. And the finale development was sharply cut down, which might have been a good idea to streamline the piece.

The main differences I found in the outer movements. For the first movement, horn parts were deleted, leading to a lighter atmosphere. Here, though, the brass in the back of the orchestra overpowered the strings. This was fine in the introduction, where the fanfares were broad and fiery. For the body of the work, while Alice Tully Hall acoustics are usually excellent, up in the balcony, the trombones and horns played their parts rancorously, overwhelming the poor Juilliard strings.

Maestro Xian Zhang gave the movement a violent martial tempo, snapping the calls with whiplash intensity. The texture might have seemed lighter, but the pace was for war, not love.

The second and third movements calmed down a bit, with a lovely violin solo (though the French horns, so busy all night, were beginning to make some fluffs). For the finale, though, the conductor returned to that almost violent tempo. This time, though, the new orchestration made that a rational decision.

Mahler augmented the roles of horns, trombones and horns, and allowed them to play full throttle. At times they issued chorales à la Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony. At other times, they, along with the dynamic timpani, put on an explosive show, ending with the horns playing high and mighty.

For that last movement, it was worth hearing the Mahler. Next time, though, I’ll take Mahler and Schumann on their own.

The two soloists of the evening, Sheryl Hwangbo asd Elzbieta Weyman, gave a very creditable performance of Mozart’s wonderful Sinfonia Concertante. The only notable drawback is that this work, with its great symphonic sweep and its plaintive slow movement, transcends any normal concerto. This was simply a well-done performance by both soloists and orchestra. Moments in that Andante demand more feeling and grace than these two highly proficient soloists could offer. But that kind of near-spontaneity rarely comes in such a focused performance.

The opening work was the rarely played Webern Opus 1. Neither fish nor fowl, it lacks the romantic tone-painting of his Summer Wind, and it nowhere near as cerebrally challenging as all of his later works. But this Passacaglia is more than an exercise, and is a lot more exciting that his final music.

In fact, the Juilliard Orchestra gave it energy, color, transparent counterpoint, and a percussion section which outdid itself to make the usually ascetical Webern into virtually a festive composer.

Harry Rolnick



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