Gustav Mahler: from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony # 5
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Seiji Ozawa (conductor)
Although Rostropovich is fond of referring to Dmitri Shostakovich as the Beethoven of the twentieth century, his symphonic language is much more akin to that of Gustav Mahler. The second movement of the Russian’s Symphony # 5 is the most Mahlerian music ever composed outside of Austria (more about that later). Because of the length of Mahler’s symphonies (and some of those by Shostakovich), it is rare to unite the works of these two great composers on the same program. It was thus especially thrilling to hear some of the Austrian’s songs, so evocative of his own early symphonies, on the same bill of fare as the arguably greatest work of the tormented Soviet.
Among the many news items surrounding the sudden death of Giuseppe Sinopoli, I was struck by the report that Thomas Hampson, himself onstage during the demise of Patane, was in the audience for Aida at Berlin that night. Struck, but not surprised, as I have observed Mr. Hampson, who lives in New York, at several concerts over the years. I find this a significant fact: he is not just a musician, but a fan as well (I also spot him at bookstores!). Even though there is no possibility for a role for him in that particular Verdi opus, he still took the trouble to attend the performance. I can count on the fingers of one hand the performers and conductors based in this city who actually go to musical events on their nights off. Hardly coincidentally, they number among the artistic and intellectual elite of their profession.
There are many songs from which to choose in the Wunderhorn, but this program was designed to emphasize Mahler’s grouping of portraits of the soldier, hoping against hope that his life will return to normality after the conflict, even as he is painfully aware that there is indeed no returning at all. Hampson on the operatic stage is a master of characterization and here too he carried the day with deeply felt portrayals and personae. Although the voice did not seem as powerful as in other recitals, it was certainly as elastic and penetrating. The set was a “Mahler’s Greatest Hits” compendium of the Symphonies # 2, 3 and 4, the unity of the songs tightened by the sonorities of the oboe (a foreshadowing of the two great Rueckert cycles). The plangent and the plaintive intermingled as this meistersinger wove his magical web. Especially poignant was his traversal of Wo die schoenen Trompeten blasen, the light but frightening military accents of the small orchestra the perfect Mozartian accompaniment. This is the obverse of the comic military songs of Figaro and Cosi. When Mahler wrote Das himmlische Leben, it was designed to be sung by either a contralto or baritone (and even a tenor in a differing arrangement), but the popularity of his subsequent Symphony # 4, in which this vision of the afterlife serves as the finale, has conditioned our ears to hear it as an exclusively female scene. Not able to sound like a grandmother (only Peter Pears could do that in song) and his voice much too low to imitate a childlike treble, Hampson opted instead for one of his splendid characters, an endearingly bucolic oaf, wide-eyed and delighted with a “Heaven full of violins” (the scene could have been subtitled “The Death of Masetto”). The sonic similarities to Shostakovich were everywhere: the combination of flute and clarinet, the solos of the double reed instruments, the martial cymbals and triangle. But the aesthetic matches were even more revealing. For both of these composers, when one strips away the anguish and the conflict it is the gentleness which remains.
That second movement of the Shostakovich seemed after this introduction to be a long lost Mahler work discovered at his country house on the Woerthersee. The opening is relentless, like its corresponding section in the Mahler 6, the shrillness of the clarinet, the “death fiddle” solos of the concertmaster, the xylophone obbligato, all conjure up the world of the Viennese grotesque. The timbral pairing of the flute and bassoon and the expanded, almost melodic role of the percussion are children of ”The Song of the Night”. Shostakovich learns from the Austrian (who learned this technique from Bruckner) the intense emotional power of combining the heartfelt with the banal, the serious with the frothy, the deepest sentiments with the most shallow of kitsch. Ozawa led a fine performance of this superb orchestral essay, somewhat ragged in parts (especially the more quiet sections), but always directly inhabiting the emotional center of the work. As he labors under the weight of his lame duck contract, Seiji appears to be taking a valedictory approach to his last days (next year will be his final farewell), imparting his wisdom before departing for the brave new world of the opera house where he is a comparative neophyte. The last few dozen measures of this ravaged piece are intensely powerful; Maestro’s glacial tempo was both shocking and revealing, each anticipated chord, each thump of the bass drum a personal statement. This was a concert which, in both halves, did much more than entertain; it laid bare the souls of the artists and sent us all out into the night edified and inspired.
Frederick L. Kirshnit