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Rite of Northwest Passage

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/28/2000 -  
Anton Webern: Im Sommerwind
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concerto # 23
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 1

Andreas Haefliger (piano)
Minnesota Orchestra
Eiji Oue (conductor)

The first movement of the Symphony #1 recalls the second song of Mahler's Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) as one of its main themes. Mahler, like Beethoven, was well aware of his place in music history (what was taken for arrogance in his day now seems like remarkable prescience) and, even at this early stage, recreates the experience of memory by quoting from his earlier material. The sounds of nature and the horn calls of the first movement come back as ghastly childhood nightmares in the third movement, the Funeral March in Callot's Manner. Here the children's song Freres Jacques (Mahler would have known it as Brother John) is distorted into a grotesquerie inspired by the painting, which all Austrian children knew, of the woodland creatures marching back home with their kill, a hunter tied to a pole. Mahler described the feeling of this section to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner as "…like shadows passing us."

Additionally, this amazing third movement recalls the Klezmer music of the shtetl, an unpopular move in anti-Semitic Vienna and a reminiscence of the composer's youth, and also quotes from another Wayfarer song Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved). In this song the protagonist encounters a lime tree (Lindenbaum) "…where I first found peace in sleep." Any Austrian music lover would have easily recognized that this is indeed the Lindenbaum of Schubert's great song cycle Winterreise (A Winter's Journey) where the hero "…would have found rest." This song (actually entitled Der Lindenbaum) is one of the prime examples of Romantic insertion into the music of the phenomenon of memory (for a detailed discussion of this song and its musical memory construction see the marvelous Charles Rosen book The Romantic Generation). Mahler juxtaposes the rhythms of the Trauermarsch with the melody of his lied to leave one with the impression, identical with that of the Schubert, that the hero's resting place under the Linden tree is in fact his grave.

The Symphony #1 also contains an homage to another master. The trio section of the second movement is quoted almost verbatim from the similar section (identical in structural function) of the third movement of the Symphony #3 of Anton Bruckner, Mahler's composition professor at the University of Vienna. Mahler fashioned a version of this symphony for piano four-hands (fellow student Rudolf Krzyzanowski actually did the fourth movement) as a consolatory gift to the Linz maestro after the disastrous world premiere of the piece. Fond of saying "my time will yet come", Mahler envisioned a world of the future where his symphonies and those of his mentor would be a part of the standard repertoire (his juxtaposition of Austrian peasant music with searingly serious thematic material was also learned from Bruckner).

Although a dismal failure at its premiere, Mahler’s First has become in the last thirty years a required initiation for young conductors bent on showing their prowess in the modern repertoire. Last evening at Carnegie Hall, Eiji Oue, already slated to leave the Minnesota Orchestra, passed his muster, but hardly with colors flying. Not that this was a terrible performance, but, as I get older, I realize more and more that the key to Mahler’s music is his Viennese quality and this was totally lacking in the armamentarium of this young aspirant from Hiroshima (it is curious how few modern conductors can pull off a Strauss waltz either). Mr. Oue’s Mahler is lead footed, the second movement bereft of the lilt which gives this piece its nostalgic base. He also has the annoying habit of speeding up and slowing down slightly but interminably, like riding in a car with a slipping transmission. Of course, one must play the hand that they are dealt and this ensemble is far from excellent. The string sound is mellifluous enough, although I felt the celli less rich than the rest, but the winds are sloppy, the horns and trumpets noticeably unsure of themselves (apparently with good reason). Oue is not a guest in Minneapolis, however, and must bear the responsibility of building this ensemble. They are a long way from the glory days under Mitropoulos.

I cannot tell you how many years I have waited for someone to allow their horn section to rise at the end of this magnificent symphony. I am deeply indebted to Maestro Oue for making this spectacular visual and audible effect happen (not to mention that his troops seemed to play better when upright). The Finale as a whole was the best executed, given the inevitable loss of crisp intonation inherent in such a long and complex score. The most interesting performance of the night was the Webern, a landscape of student Romanticism that puts me in mind of the Boecklin pictures of Max Reger. This WoO piece was introduced to the world under the unlikely baton of Eugene Ormandy and he often trotted it out to show his sympathies for the entire century which he seemed to ignore while holding court in Philadelphia for so many years. Here Oue caught the spirit of this overstuffed era; it is too bad that he does not understand the corresponding underside of lightness that is essential to the Mahlerian idiom.

Andreas Haefliger is a lazy pianist. Although his tone is appropriate for Mozart (is it possible to have a light touch and yet be heavy-handed at the same time?), his lack of concentration was apparent and disturbing. He releases some notes too early, lingers on others too long and rarely hits a key in its center. Although he tries to hide some of his shortcomings with generous pedaling, his many dissonances find him out. The Minnesotans provided a sensitive accompaniment, but this performance was quite simply unacceptable.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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