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Teacher and Student

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/25/1999 -  
Gustav Mahler: Four Rueckert Lieder
Anton Bruckner: Symphony #9

Anna Larsson (contralto)
Berlin Philharmonic
Claudio Abbado (conductor)

In many ways Gustav Mahler is the bridge between the last vestiges of traditional harmony and the first forays into the modern worlds of pantonality. The Januarian aspects of his major works are underscored by his personal links to his composition teacher Anton Bruckner and his protégé Arnold Schoenberg. Bruckner himself wrote pieces that looked both forward and backward and the greatest of these essays, the mighty Symphony #3, was written while Mahler was his star pupil (in fact Mahler and another student composed the piano reduction of the piece and whole sections of the younger manís Symphony #1 liberally borrow from this seminal work). One of the principles that the two great Austrian masters discussed was the art of orchestration and nowhere is Mahlerís genius more apparent in this discipline than in the two song cycles on poems of Friedrich Rueckert. The chamber orchestra garnered from the huge Berlin Philharmonic provided a wonderfully ephemeral background to the singing of Anna Larsson last evening in a performance of four of these songs (actually one not orchestrated by Mahler).

Ms. Larsson has a good press agent and her star seems to definitely be on the rise. Her performance however was, at least for me, disappointing. After a major adjustment in her volume level during the first song as she realized that she must project considerably more for the large Carnegie Hall, she traversed these four complexly emotional songs with hardly a hint of feeling or emotive power. The voice is rich enough but the intensely moving text was not well served by this deadpan approach. Ms. Larsson might be better served to study Carnatic singing where the highest praise is reserved for the singers who can express the least heartfelt variations in their voice. But the orchestra was sublime and the English horn solos of Dominik Wollenweber were excruciatingly plangent. The string accompaniment was notable for the amazingly clear way in which one could hear every note and nuance and Abbadoís conducting was the epitome of delicacy. Inexplicably Ms. Larsson did not perform Um Mitternacht.

Mahler was deeply affected by his mentorís final work, the Symphony #9, left unfinished at his death. The younger man struggled with the curse of the ninth symphony (Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner and Dvorak all died after working on theirs) and even went so far as to call his own 9th Das Lied von der Erde to beat the odds. Of course he lost his dangerous game when he finally published his own 9th (played the night before by Abbado and this great ensemble) and tried to complete a 10th only to expire in the process. But the link between these two men and their compositions is solid, even to the point where the octave leap in the strings which shocks us at the beginning of the last movement of the Bruckner is quoted verbatim in the opening of the final movement of the Mahler. Once again the link between past and future is apparent in the huge score that is Brucknerís final testament, including quotes from Parsifal at the conclusion of the first movement.

Abbado approached the work religiously. He waited for a very long time before beginning to conduct, creating a wonderfully sacred atmosphere of silence and then the orchestra began the first tremulous chord seemingly without his having even made a gesture. The effect was hypnotic. He then proceeded to lead his troops in the most satisfying performance of the 9th that I have ever heard, filled with huge chords wherein one could hear every aspect without any loss of intonation even at triple fortissimo levels. The silken sound of the strings was superbly balanced against the power of the augmented brass section (complete with four Wagner tubas) and one felt that this was the best that one would ever hear this paean to the glory of God.

The second movement was positively hair-raising in its sheer muscularity and sustained levels of volume and feverish tempi. After each burst of orchestral fire there was a moment of fissionable overtones floating throughout the hall, mimicking the sound of Brucknerís own precious organ at St. Florianís. What might otherwise be heard as distracting was actually an integral part of this religious experience.

The third movement was also one of great depth and power, the slowed tempi leading to a fading chord in the horns and trombones which melted into silence. Once again Abbado framed the work in a halo of quietude, leaving his hands up for at least a full minute before we were allowed to audibly show our heartfelt appreciation. This was a masterly interpretation and one that will live in my memory for years to come.

It has always been my thought that if there is an afterlife, my reward will be that I finally am able to hear the finale to Brucknerís 9th. If I ever get that far, I hope that Maestro Abbado and his Berliners are there to play it for me.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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