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HSOís Das Lied von der Erde Misses the Mark

Jones Hall
11/19/2009 -  & November 21, 22
Johannes Brahms: Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16
Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Jane Henschel (mezzo-soprano), Gregory Kunde (tenor)
Houston Symphony Orchestra, Hans Graf (conductor)

H. Graf (© Christian Steiner)

Brahmsí two early serenades presage every aspect of the composerís mature rhetoric, from his glorious solo woodwind writing to polyrhythmic textures and dancing cross-rhythms. These are all inlaid into a rigorously detailed score, with careful dynamic and articulation indications that, when dutifully observed, create the excitement, structure and fun that make the works so enjoyable.

The performance of the second of the two in Jones Hall, however, failed to highlight these aspects. For the most part, the musicians executed the piece well. The low strings of the HSO, in their somewhat limited role, passed in and out of the texture effortlessly, complementing Anne Leekís pungent, intelligently-phrased oboe solos and the hornsí spot-on playing. The problems seemed to come from a lack of interpretative vision from the podium. Brahmsí specific dynamic gradations, many lasting twelve or sixteen bars, require commitment. Hans Graf muffled any dynamic level except mezzo piano, causing what is typically a grand climax in the first movement to sound flat. The last chord of the second movement was suddenly loud, instead of being gradually built up to throughout the movementís coda. This lack of dynamic hierarchy exacerbated the deficit of momentum resulting from Grafís middle-of-the-road tempos. The second movement certainly wasnít Vivace, and neither it nor the fourth movement had the necessary bucolic lilt that makes them truly enjoyable. The fifth movementís tempo was neither excitingly brisk nor majestically staid, but sat somewhere in the middle, uncommitted and uninvolving. The performance came off as a casual read-through.

Sadly, Mahlerís song-symphony after intermission fell into many of the same traps. First and foremost, Kunde and Henschel, though both possessing fine instruments, were simply miscast. The tenorís first entry is marked "Mit voller Kraf". Perhaps Kunde was singing with all his strength, but his voice was barely audible. It is notoriously difficult to balance voice and orchestra in this movement. Only singers willing to add some metal to their tone stand a chance, but Kunde seemed reluctant or unable to do so. As a specialist in Italian and French bel canto repertoire, he seemed a strange choice to sing what is practically a Heldentenor part. In his middle two songs, the voice carried better, but Kunde was often rhythmically insecure.

Mahler specifies that the tenor should be joined by an alto. Henschel has a gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice, but she was altogether inaudible anywhere approaching the bottom of the staff, let alone in the true alto registers that Mahler exploits so hauntingly in this work. She also didnít seem to have a firm grasp on the piece, and Graf was alternately correcting some misplaced entries and spoon-feeding others to her.

As in the Brahms, individual contributions from the orchestra were top-notch. The horn section was resplendent, flute, oboe and English horn solos were tastefully played, and the strings were precise within their respective sections. Everything didnít add up, however, since there again seemed to be a lack of clarity from the podium. In thick moments, there was no hierarchy of voicing across the ensemble, and this was worsened by occasional phasing problems and slight rhythmic imperfections that muddied the texture. Mahlerís imitations of nature sounds throughout werenít integrated into the musical flow and instead sounded like interruptions. The last minutes of the piece lacked the controlled morendo across the orchestra that should transfigure the listener.

It was announced that these Mahler performances were being recorded for commercial release, and this leads one to wonder whether the balance issues, easily fixable in the mixing studio, were left unaddressed for the live performances. If balance and ensemble problems are indeed tweaked, the resulting recording will be technically satisfying; however, Das Lied von der Erde is no longer the rarity it once was in the concert hall, and it is extremely well-served on recording. Grafís seemingly cavalier approach to the details of the piece canít be fixed at the mixing board, and his indifferent interpretation of the work can only result in the same reaction from listeners.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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