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More Cowbell!

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/21/2017 -  
Salvatore Sciarrino: La nuova Euridice seconda Rilke
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor

Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)

B. Hannigan (© Prisca Ketterer)

“History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.”
Winston Churchill, November 1940

Learning all of the Mahler symphonies as a young teenager, I really only had difficulty with the Sixth. I believe now that I was simply not experienced enough to relate to the deeply disturbing emotional freight carried by this monumental canvas. The piece was still called the “Tragic” in those days and it may very well have gone far above the head and heart of a youth of rather limited experience. Also, the 6th was the last symphony of Mahler performed in America (Koussevitzky had tried to obtain the orchestral parts from Germany, but was told in those bad old days that they had all burned in a fire) and thus there were very few recordings available. Quite frankly, at 70 I still have trouble appreciating that last movement.

Henry-Louis de La Grange, the great Mahler biographer, remarked to me at a dinner party about a dozen years ago that he had then spent as many years on the life of Gustav Mahler as Mahler had himself. Mr. de La Grange comes down squarely on the side of the Andante as the rightful second part, as the composer may have perhaps premiered the piece with the Scherzo second but quickly reversed the order of the two movements. I had to check with a discophile friend in California, but the first recording of the Sixth (by F. Charles Adler) had indeed the Andante as the second part, an order also followed by Dmitri Mitropoulos in his early New York performances in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. I learned the piece with the Scherzo immediately following the Allegro energico and so exhibit a prejudice toward this way of thinking (it is inarguably more intense of a transition from movement one to movement two than its alternative). I am, therefore, not an unbiased judge in this ongoing controversy. Fortuitously, Sir Antonio opted for the Scherzo as the second movement.

Mahler’s completed symphonies fall into three groups. The 1st and 4th are presented with another offering to fill out a standard concert duration. The 2nd, 3rd and 8th stand alone. The other four, the 5th, 6th, 7th and 9th, present a problem: are they long enough for a complete musical experience or should there be an introductory piece to fill out the time? Salvatore Sciarrino’s La nuova Euridice seconda Rilke was this evening’s answer. But wait! First, our conductor opted for a rather long lecture, with notes and pages of reference material. These introductory talks are never welcome and when the speaker has a less than perfect grasp of the language in question, it is a long slog indeed. All we really learned was that the work recreates the journey of Eurydice in the Underworld.

The piece was a little too reminiscent of Monteverdi and/or Gluck to be considered totally new and revelatory (and considerably less impressive than either of its predecessors). Barbara Hannigan has a bad habit of looking down at her score which leads to quite a bit of inaudible singing. When looking up she was adequate though never really exciting. All in all, between lecture and presentation, this was close to an hour that we shall never have back.

We all came for the Mahler and were treated to a fine performance. After a relentless first movement there was a wonderful surprise. The program booklet listed the Andante moderato as the next item on the menu, however maestro chose to keep the momentum going with a rousing Scherzo whose only flaw was a bit too much eagerness and enthusiasm, particularly the tendency to rush individual passages. But those of us in the crowd who were misled by the program listing were delighted and looked forward to a lovely slower movement with a hint of quietude. We left the hall satisfied although a bit confused. When did they decide to present the movements in that more ecstatic order?

And the number of hammer blows? Well, that’s a question for another day.

Fred Kirshnit



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