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Majestic Mahler

Academy of Music
10/30/1999 -  
Frederick Delius: Brigg Fair
Gustav Mahler: Symphony #5

Philadelphia Orchestra, Andrew Davis (conductor)

After the dismal failure of his Symphony #4 Mahler pulled back some of his creative experimentation and determined to write strictly instrumental symphonies in a more acceptable format and style. The resulting three middle period efforts stand together as a great body of work now considered popular but previously fated to endure a long period of resistance from the public. In this centennial season of the Philadelphia Orchestra the ensemble is performing only works of the twentieth century and traversing this rich and varied repertoire with an ear to their connections to the group's own performance history. The Mahler 5 was actually a laggard in this respect, not appearing on a program at the Academy of Music until 1964 under Hermann Scherchen (although Ormandy had conducted the Adagietto in 1942) and this is not surprising considering the grudging acceptance of Mahler as a legitimate composer, a concept which did not really flourish until the entrance of Bernstein in the late 1960's. But it was Stokowski who kept the Mahlerian flame burning in the '30's and '40's, performing significant US premieres (as well as many New York premieres on the Philadelphia touring circuit) and championing the Viennese master when only a few personal acquaintances (notably Klemperer and Walter) ever dared to program his shocking orchestral scores. The composer himself when he came to lead the New York Philharmonic in 1910 did not explore his own repertoire, choosing instead a very main stream of Beethoven and Mozart in his brief New World stint.

Mahler's nervousness about the launching of his new style of symphonic essay would have been considerably abated if he could have heard performances like the one to which we were treated last evening. Andrew Davis has a good grasp of Mahlerian architecture and phrasing (still surprisingly missing from most conductors' armamentaria) and sucessfully projected his conception of this massive work through this amazingly adept and mellifluous ensemble. The Trauermarsch that is the first movement was intelligently played as a suggestion of a march, suitable only for the concert hall and not the parade ground, much as a Chopin waltz is only for the salon and not the ballroom. Davis emphasized the ghostly images of the kettledrum as rhythmic groundings allowing him to freely explore an asymmetrical use of orchestral rubato which destroyed any regular sense of linear time in favor of an otherworldly and eternal clock. The intensity of the second movement only served to frame this first movement as a passage from the travails of this world to the less temporal realm beyond (a sort of mini "Resurrection" Symphony).

Nolan Miller performed the horn obbligato of the third movement masterfully, although at a surprisingly low volume. Sometimes positively sotto voce, Miller was expressive in his phrasing and flawless in his technique. Perhaps he was adjusting his output to the bizarre acoustics of the Academy where the parabolic effects are reversed to the point where sound actually travels from the audience to the stage. Davis held his forces in check to accomodate this volume level, although I sometimes had to strain to hear this solidly interesting performance. There were some balance problems which made the brass and woodwinds seem shrill, but this phenomenon might be Philadelphia's curse for having such a brilliant and warm string sound.

With the best string section in America the Adagietto was positively gorgeous. Davis weighed in heavily on the love song side of the "romance versus dirge" argument and was not at all inhibited in his passionate phrasings, even stopping several times for the loveliness of the sound to fully fill the ear (I love conductors who do this here unashamedly). Although apparently far from the composer's own conception of the movement (cf. Bruno Walter), this lingering and steamy approach has now taken on a life of its own, as the Adagietto itself did in the dark days of World War II.

The Finale was positively thrilling and briskly performed. Some pieces (like Mahler's own 9th Symphony) require a long pause at the end before there should be any applause. But the 5th (and the 7th) cry out for instantaneous release of the crowd's emotions and tonight's ending and burst of spontaneous response made one feel a part of a truly special night.

The concert opened with a puff piece which sounded strangely like the overture to Brigadoon complete with folk tune reminiscent of How are things in Glockamora. It was important, however, to have a curtain raiser so that the latecomers could be seated without ruining our concentration for the Mahler. The twenty-five minute intermission after the fifteen minute work was a bit excessive, but, after all, champagne and cigarettes are as important today as in Mahler's own time at the Vienna Philharmonic.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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