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New York
Carnegie Hall
01/15/2002 -  
Franz Schubert: Overture to Rosamunde
Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony # 1
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 1

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta (conductor)

The two greatest figures in 20th century Viennese music shared a cordial and fruitful working relationship. Gustav Mahler, from his exalted position as director of the Opera, deigned to mentor the struggling autodidact Arnold Schoenberg, who returned the favor with slavish fealty. As a young composer, Schoenberg subscribed to the elephantiasis of orchestral sound espoused by his elder, creating in his Gurrelieder a work so vast that special music paper had to be invented so that Franz Schreker, the conductor at its premiere, could see all of its parts at once. Mahler, in his turn, had learned to expand his instrumental forces from his own mentor Anton Bruckner and that teacher’s demigod Richard Wagner. Like his contemporary Richard Strauss, Mahler had a penchant for directing huge ensembles, expressing his particular aesthetic in a gloriously big-boned manner. However, while Mahler’s stage grew more and more crowded (his Symphony # 8 is dubbed the “Symphony of a Thousand” because of its prodigious choruses), Schoenberg began to think symphonically in thicker, more compact terms. Last night’s concert by the Israel Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall presented the first symphonies of each of these two friends and the contrast was immediately apparent: where one man sought to express complexity through expansion, the other felt the need to speak as densely and efficiently as possible.

Schoenberg was a great admirer of Max Reger, whose harmonic language is the most tightly packed prior to our own era. Reacting to the 110 piece orchestra for Strauss’ Elektra, the young composer fashioned his first symphony using only fifteen instruments, essentially one sonority per melodic or harmonic line. The resultant writing is filled with emotional weight (some would say “freight”) and a good performance expresses an incredible amount of tension in each and every bar. An interesting corollary to this style of composing is the Malthusian irony that the music seems not at all airy but rather crowded and overpopulated (it is this urban density which gives the work its neurasthenic flavor).

When Zubin Mehta was music director of the New York Philharmonic, he used to carry packets of Indian spices with him in order to coat his throat before attempting to ingest bland American food. Now, as head of the Israel Philharmonic orchestra, he brings metal detectors and x-ray machines which transformed the Carnegie lobby into a miniature airport. The result of these precautions was a twenty-five minute delay before the start of the concert. Mr. Mehta was educated in Vienna and has always shown a special understanding of its unique musical styles, especially in works from the fin-de-siecle. His recording of the Symphony # 4 of Franz Schmidt has been the benchmark for many years, and next season he leads his old NY Phil in four different orchestral compositions of Anton Webern. Last evening’s performance of the Schoenberg was remarkable for the clarity of its individual lines, if not for their purity of statement. One could hear everything in this reading (no mean accomplishment), however there was a good deal of fudging by the solo participants and a more than acceptable amount of mistakes. One interesting sidelight was the sentimental portamento of the first violinist, imparting just the right touch of Viennese schmaltz, reminiscent of Fritz Kreisler (who played in the same danceband as Schoenberg), to the otherwise forward looking piece. The animus of the work was evident, even if the corpus was blemished.

When Mahler had composed his Symphony # 1 some years earlier, he was a working opera conductor with a fascination for orchestral flair. His manner of tonal coloration was conceived in the broadest possible terms and he spent a lifetime filling large halls with bigger and bigger sounds. In fact, it was Mahler, the orchestrator of a Beethoven string quartet, who suggested to Schoenberg that the latter’s new sextet, Transfigured Night, would sound better if he expanded it to full string orchestra size (which he did). In his initial attempt at symphonic thought, Mahler employs the fullest possible ensemble to express his sweeping interpretations of the burning romanticism of novelist Jean Paul (Richter). For example, there are eight individual horn parts (nine, if the section leader employs an assistant) alone, and Mahler, in love with impressive effects, has the entire section stand at the conclusion of the finale in an unforgettable display of flash and fanfare.

The rap on Mehta when he was here in New York was that he was not a sufficient disciplinarian and there is little doubt that he left a slovenly orchestra for Kurt Masur to inherit. This same sort of sonic effect plagues his current forces. The strings have a dull, pedestrian sound, the winds are shrill, the brasses screechy. Maestro’s Mahler was spirited and endowed with pop-style élan, but the execution of the players was often haphazard. The bass solo that opens the third movement was slurred and, even in moments of poetic interpretation, the tutti sound was weakly deficient. Mr. M was correct in not allowing his horns to stand at the work’s conclusion; they had been disappointing us all evening. This particular IPO turned out to be much less attractive than it had appeared in the prospectus.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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