REVIEW | Carnegie Hall: Mahler’s Symphony #2

Repost from: das Ding an sich Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 8 PM

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Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 8 PM STAATSKAPELLE BERLIN, cond. Pierre Boulez Westminster Symphonic Choir, dir. Eberhard Friedrich Soloists: Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)

MAHLER | Symphony No. 2, ‘Resurrection’

For me, as for many Mahler devotees I’ve known or known of (and not only the fabled Gilbert Kaplan, for whom it was a veritable idée fixe), the Second Symphony [‘Resurrection’] was the most decisive portal into this composer’s oeuvre. During my high school years, after an English teacher lent me a recording of Abbado’s 1976 recording with the Chicago SO on Deutsche Grammophone—which I listened to probably some twenty times before buying my own copy—I went to the local library and checked out every recording of this work I could get my hands on (Bernstein, Solti, Haitink, Kaplan, Mehta, Maazel, et al., some of which were incredibly forgettable). Gradual listening to the other symphonies, then the Lieder — helped along the way by a brief bout of lurking on MAHLER-L and a Mahler seminar in college — sealed Mahler as the composer closest to my heart. My two go-to recordings of this symphony are now Klemperer’s with the Philharmonia on EMI and, after all these years, that old Abbado disc; occasionally, in less impatient moods, I turn to Rattle’s attentive 1986 rendition. (Many of these just mentioned are discussed in Tony Duggan’s fine omnibus review of Second Symphony recordings.) None of the others I’ve come across has really managed to bore itself into the soul. Soul-gripping and soul-assailing and soul-transporting—that is the power of this symphony when done right.

Puzzlingly, despairingly, last night’s Staatskapelle Berlin performance, led by Pierre Boulez, felt at times almost procedural, and although the orchestra and chorus lacked no power when it mattered, not until Urlicht and the final movement did the execution begin truly to rise to the score. The opening was, it must be said, extremely promising. I’ve always thought that the cellos in the opening section should have a shade of brutality, of raw and earthy rumble: it is something like the sound of existence’s grappling with earthliness, and this grappling requires a lot of textured traction. The Staatskapelle’s cellists were superb in digging into their strings here, and curiously this effect was even augmented by Boulez’s directions stipulating an unusual slowness, protracting the push and pull of strokes. As the movement went on, however, the sense of musical as well as emotional continuity became tenuous. What did those hearing (or truly listening to) this for the first time last night make, say, of some superficial abruptnesses in the music? Why a seeming biding of time one minute, and a minute later a clashing of cymbals startling everybody who’s nodded off? Mahler’s symphonies are never mere stories, but each amounts to far more than any Eliotian ‘heap of broken images.’ Each Mahlerian fragment bears within it the longing for wholeness, the wishful memory of wholeness; often longing is the story. At best, Mr. Boulez seemed interested in excavating the sonic textures of certain segments rather than in unfolding for us the whole. Indeed, in the second and third movements especially, perhaps wary of too-easy drama, he seemed to hold back a bit too much, resulting in an inscrutable plainness. One ached for a more vigilant treatment of the transitions—a more responsible communication, even, of the ebbs and flows, the whims and the throes, of feeling.

The Staatskapelle players sounded terrific overall, for their part, as did the Westminster Symphonic Choir (which sang this work with the NYPhil directed by Kaplan last December, and will appear again this cycle for Mahler’s Third and Eighth). Moments of vulnerability among the brass were more audible this time, unfortunately, and I found myself wishing—for this symphony at least—for a more glistening, gauzy sound from the violin section. Apart from the ever lovely cellos, the true star of the evening was the lush and capacious voice of Michelle DeYoung. (I saw her last as Venus in a wonderful Tannhäuser at the Met in December 2004, which also starred Deborah Voight, Thomas Hampson, and Peter Seiffert.) Pending her vibrato—which needs just a slight diminution for this music—I dare say she has the potential to become one of the great Mahlerian mezzos of our time.

Theodor Adorno was right to focus on Mahler’s ‘breakthroughs’—when the music exceeds itself, swells up from its own ground, toward new luminosities or into new tumult—a pattern of almost inexplicable mutation and transmutation that is truly at the heart of Mahler’s alchemy. The performance last night enabled the listener to imagine such magic, but not to experience it.

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