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Mr. Salonen’s Farewell Banquet

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
06/06/2017 -  
Gustav Mahler: Blumine – Kindertotenlieder
Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 – Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105

Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo-Soprano), Christian Tetzlaff (Violin)
The MET Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor)

C. Tetzlaff/A. S. von Otter (© Courtesy of the Artists)

Esa-Pekka Salonen didn’t merely finish his three-concert stint with The MET Orchestra last night. He offered a farewell feast, a bounteous banquet, a quartet of music which potentially could stun even a Carnegie Hall audience into stunned silence.

Only two composers were present, and both Sibelius and Mahler were alike and different to the nth degree. Both of them wrote stunning vocal works, but neither ever wrote an opera. Neither ever wrote a religious piece. (Though Mahler did plumb the Mystical aether.)

Nor did either composer write any interesting piano music. (Glenn Gould seems to think that Sibelius wrote worthy works for the keyboard, but hey, that was Glenn Gould.)

Both composers could be considered Late Romantic, but neither one would ever fit in those terms. Nor was either one in the geographic mainstream. One from the northernmost corner of Europe, the other born somewhere (Hungary? The Czech Republic? Austro-Hungarian Empire), eternally wandering, the homeless Jew who converted for business reasons but showed his Jewish temperament and music with barely hidden chutzpah.

Yet how different they were. Sibelius, the hard-drinking homebody delving into the musical forests of Finland, going deeper and deeper into dark musical mysteries without a thought of 20th Century dissonance. Mahler famously taking on the world, meeting Freud personally and musico-psychically, soaring to Goethe’s heavens rather than Sibelius’s provincial legends.

What Esa-Pekka Salonen knew intuitively was how a single concert with their music–early and late compositions of both–could offer a single two-hour-plus picture of both enigmas and emotions.

His success was not revelatory, it didn’t uncover new universes. Yet. James Levine had augmented the players of The MET Orchestra into an ensemble which excelled in more than lyrical accompaniment. Their soloists have an equal finesse. And that was easily seen in Mahler’s rare Blumine, taken from a score now lost, then rewritten for the First Symphony, removed and now played as a short solo work.

The soloist here was First Trumpet David Krauss, whose melody had the springtime naďveté of the Third Symphony flügelhorn, with a gentle orchestral accompaniment which could only have come from Mahler.

What, though, one mused, would Mr. Salonen do with the far-from-rare Sibelius Violin Concerto? For the first movement, at least, one hardly needed an orchestra at all. The great Christian Tetzlaff played the concerto without too much thought for the orchestra, working the music like a solo fantasia. True, Mr. Salonen led with the usual sudden growling chords, and those low canonic interludes. Yet Mr. Tetzlaff must have appreciated the conductor’s reticence, because he made the most of the almost non-stop violin passages.

The first movement was played without a bit of the usual hesitance. From then on, Mr. Tetzlaff simply played like a solo fiddler, fully aware that The MET Orchestra would follow him gallantly, no matter what the tempos. If this was a fantasia, if the cadenza was simply part of the entire fantastic movement, so be it.

The second movement was played more coolly than poetically, and this was fine for the Sibelius color, allowing the double-stopped thirds to stand out with emotional valor, while The Met’s horns and bassoons added the right balance.

Mr. Tetzlaff’s finale was less the danse macabre than a thrust-and-parry duel with the orchestra which was jolting enough, though Mr. Tetzlaff and Mr. Salonen never forgot that this was no Central European whizz-bang ending. The Sibelius melancholy seemed always in the background.

Nothing, though, was reticent for Mr. Tetzlaff’s encore from Béla Bartók’s Solo Violin Sonata. Those double-stops, trills, muted notes and all the tricks in the bookwere played with easy-going insouciance and charm. He is simply one of the masters of his instrument and always a joy to hear.

Yet it was the second half, the “mature” Sibelius and Mahler, which were most memorable here. The great Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter made for Songs on the Death of Children. Her voice is cool, austere, and–when necessary–tragic . More than any Mahler song-cycle, the singer needs to dramatize the so trenchant sadness of the poetry, along with the irony, the illusions of children returning, the horror of the storm.

True, the words refer to a male voice. But just as Mr. Salonen chose to preclude the duets of Magic Horn in the first evening, he chose Ms. von Otter as his spokeswoman here. And what a stunning performance. Hers was not an operatic dramatic performance. She sung with her usual imperturbability (those crystal-clear tones like musted radiance rather than shafts of light), she controlled the fury of the opening verses, and never over-emphasized those horrifying verses of the fourth song (“Soon they will be back home again...it’s a lovely day”).

Ms. von Otter was most memorable in the last song, a movement of literal storms and godly acceptance together. Her legato assuaged the fury of the storm, her last notes sacrosanct. And Mr. Salonen, in the final measures, allowed us to hear the pianissimo glockenspiel like the toll of church bells.

I am hesitant to write about the Sibelius Seventh Symphony because of a personal incident. A very close friend died suddenly about ten days ago, and while my feelings were intense, nothing physical showed. The first section of this one-movement work, though, was so concentrated, so acute, so vivid that I hid my head, for the tears came bursting out.

No, this work is not supposed to be a catharsis, of course. But the cosmopolitan Mr. Salonen, had plunged into his “inner Sibelius” to produce a piece of the greatest possible expression. So deep was this beginning with its heroic trombone solo that I almost resented the more rapid second section, wanting to stay with this, the last major work of the composer.

The other works on the program were excellent, one cannot wait for Mr. Salonen’s return. But this Seventh Symphony had such pathos, serenity and grandeur that conductor had transported myself, and presumably the rest of the full house, from Sibelius’s beloved earth to an unearthly cosmology.

Harry Rolnick



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