Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 2
Janice Watson (soprano)
Petra Lang (mezzo)
Westminster Symphonic Choir
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly (conductor)
“…Mahler’s powerful thought emerges all the more easily because there is no barrier between it and the audience…It’s like being in the presence of a gifted actor; he makes us forget his talent but can bring tears to our eyes.”
Ernest Bloch, discussing the 2nd Symphony
One might surmise that Gustav Mahler’s best friend in the conductorial ranks was his loyal assistant Bruno Walter, but actually their relationship was rather formal and cold. In fact, given Mahler’s aristocratic and autocratic temperament, one could almost describe the dynamic as that of master and slave. The director of the Vienna Opera chose instead the Dutchman Willem Mengelberg as his closest artistic confidante. This remarkable man had elevated the Concertgebouw Orchestra (before they were “royal”) from the status of a village band to that of a world class ensemble in just a brief time and stayed on for an astounding 50 years in what many consider to be the finest tenure in the annals of 20th century musical life. Mahler visited Amsterdam more than once, leading the new Symphony # 3 on his first trip (Mengelberg had been at the world premiere earlier in 1902) and spending extended time at the Rijksmuseum (the second movement of the Symphony # 7 is a musical recreation of Rembrandt’s Night Watch). On his next visit, the composer was honored by Mengelberg when he programmed the new 4th Symphony twice on the same evening’s bill of fare. And the world’s first Mahler festival took place at the Concertgebouw when Mengelberg presented all nine symphonies plus Das Lied von der Erde in 1920. Mahler himself had conducted the Hollanders in a performance of the ”Resurrection” in 1904.
In the cup running over department, I had the great good fortune to experience this thrilling performance twice in the same week. This orchestra has evolved into the premiere interpreter of Mahler over the years. Certainly a case can be made for the Haitink cycle being the finest on record and, without question, the Concertgebouw portion of their former music director’s Shostakovich symphonic cycle on CD, using a remarkably similar harmonic idiom, is truly spectacular. Once again, the performance was magnificent, contrasting the drama of the outer movements with the grace of the inner in ways striking for their clarity and memorable for their profundity. I was particularly charmed by the rendition of the Andante, the delicacy of the rhythmic flow almost imperceptibly internal, one’s own head nodding in sync to the conductor’s light and understated (yet elementally insistent) beat. The scherzo was exaggerated just a tad to emphasize the rollicking humor of the original “St. Anthony Preaches to the Fishes” lied and reminded of those baritones who can put it over as a coarse joke without sacrificing any of its innate beauty (Tommy Quasthoff is especially adept at this). And those framing alpha and omega movements were simply overwhelming! This was not just the finest effort of the season, but, arguably, the best Mahler performance that I have ever heard live.
I am ready now to make my report on the acoustics at Prudential Hall. Leaving my critic’s seat in the orchestra, I ascended all the way to the farthest reaches of the fourth level balcony and sat alone against the back wall. From my aerie I was able to observe every nuance of instrumentation both aurally and visually. The sound at this venue is considerably cleaner than at Carnegie Hall, although nowhere near as warm, and much the superior to Avery Fisher in both definition and richness. I could hear many inner voices previously unknown to me, for example, pedal points in the contrabassoon and a distinct difference between a crashed cymbal and a struck one. It was particularly fun to watch the busy percussion section and appreciate unusual effects like the rune (a bundle of sticks struck on the shell of the bass drum) and enjoy a different view of those atavistic bells. The offstage band and the soloists were softer in this performance than at Carnegie, but I believe that this was a simple function of positioning rather than acoustics. Actually, the distant sound of the invisible instrumentalists worked so spectrally well as to tip the scales in favor of this more colorful reading and it was also a nice touch to have the hidden trumpets and horns emerge for the very ending, standing onstage even as their brethren sat. For fifteen dollars, a seat in this top section for a wonderful musical experience like this has to be the best value in the tri-state area.
Frederick L. Kirshnit