Deep in the Heart of Mahler
Issac Steern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Gustav Mahler: From Des Knaben Wunderhorn: “Der Schildwache Nachtlied”, “Verlor’ne Müh”, “Trost im Unglück”, “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht”, “Das irdische Leben”, “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt”, “Rheinlegendchen”, “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm”, “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” & “Lob des hohen Verstandes” – Symphony No. 1
Susan Graham (Mezzo-soprano), Matthew Polenzani (Tenor)
The MET Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor)
E.-P. Salonen (© LAPhil.com)
The first four bars from the third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony last night commenced as an Esa-Pekka Salonen revelation, perhaps his only idiosyncratic revelation of the entire symphony. Rather than allowing the double basses to play the usual lachrymose funeral march, I believe Mr. Salonen had them muted, the bows played without any vibrato, and that little minor triad sounded as ragged and as wretched as the supposed village Jewish band could be.
After that, Mr. Salonen allowed the klezmer orchestra full weight for a humorous, peasant-y explosive pizazz, allowing Mahler’s full Jewish persona to take weight. Five days ago, I had been at Montreal’s gorgeous Marc Chagall exhibition, and true, the klezmer band here was more appropriate than in Carnegie Hall. But it had the same marvelous effect.
And what was Esa-Pekka doing here this month? As is well known, James Levine, the MET’s conductor has been ailing, and Mr. Salonen is the very worthy replacement. And true, the Mahler of Maestro Levine had promised to be revelatory, while Mr. Salonen–certainly a Mahler devotee–has so far given only excellent but far from personal performances.
What we had last night was a program which was diverting, entertaining, sometimes happily absurd (like the Funeral March), but rarely revelatory in the Levine sense.
The First Symphony offers so many different moods–some apparent like the opening “nature calls” to a finale which can be either bombastic or inspiring–that conductors can choose what they want. Perhaps the trouble with Mr. Salonen is that he is so excellent in so many different ways as a conductor. But the Mahler personality may temporarily escape him.
That first movement did have its share of bird-calls and hunting-horn fanfares. But Mr. Salonen is so meticulous in recordings that even the slightest misstep in horns or winds (and there were several) seems out of place. Yes, the MET Orchestra was basically together, but we had, instead of the amorphous calls of Mother Nature, a series of loud and soft sections. Not uncohesive, literal rather than organic.
That second movement was lilting, rhythmic, it had a quasi-shmaltzy ländler trio, and was a decent enough introduction to everybody’s favorite, the “three blind mice” funeral march.
Mr. Salonen wound up with a blast-em-to-the-rafters opening chord for the finale, and ended the piece with torrents of fanfares, cymbals, timpani and orchestral clashes. The conductor has far too much integrity to play to the rafters, but ultimately the audience stood to its feet, applauding wildly the quite wild ending.
S. Graham, M. Polenzani (© Courtesy of the Artists)
Yet for this listener, Mr. Salonen and his two singers, excelled in Des Knaben Wunderhorn–or sections of “The Youth’s Magic Horn”.
The work is so beguiling that one wonders why the complete song-cycle is rarely performed. After all, it can be done by a single singer (I think Thomas Hampson did the whole thing), by singers doing male and female voices individually, or...
...Or in this case, mezzo Susan Graham and tenor Matthew Polenzani each taking monopoly of their own songs, playing both genders No preference here. With the right singers and the right orchestra, these alleged children’s verses (cusping on the grotesque) are always effective.
Mr. Polenzani didn’t always find his balance with the orchestra, but when he did–during the intensely emotional “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen”, he brought his blazing tenor voice to the fore.
As for Ms. Graham, she is not a force of nature by herself, though her voice and technique are faultless. Yet–whether one likes it or not–she is the most open, the most physical, and frankly, the most exposed around. Maybe this is a presumption, since she hails from Texas (is that the right Texan verb?), and she is open to all the emotions.
Thus, whether in the Schubert-like “Das irdische Leben” or the flirty little “Verlor’ne Müh”, she was the opposite of her tenor companion. He was stalwart, serious, looking like a Heldentenor. Ms. Graham was perhaps over-playing her hand–looking like she was ready for a square-dance–but she never over-played her glorious voice.
It was theatrical, it was stagey...but gosh-darn-it, if old Gustav had watched her, he might’a shrugged his shoulders, maybe closed his eyes, but his ears would have been delighted.