Sergei Prokofieff: Violin Concerto #1
Gustav Mahler: Symphony #5
Elisabeth Batiashvili (violin)
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Yuri Temirkanov (conductor)
2011 will be here before we know it and the 100th anniversary of the death of Gustav Mahler already must have concert programmers salivating. The centenary has seen these large canvasses rise all the way from vilification and, even worse, obscurity, to universal adoration and overexposure. No conductor trying to establish his worth in salt can ignore a complete Mahler cycle, at this juncture a required rite of passage to respectability and possible superstardom. However, these myriad series often have a familiar ring to them, a certain dull sameness and conformity which makes it difficult to distinguish one aspirant from the next and, even more distressing, to distinguish the original thoughts and dreams of this ingenious klangfarbenmaler, whose elevation of the mundane and banal has an especial kinship to trends in contemporary art and culture. It was thus refreshing last evening to experience a truly personal reading of a Mahler symphony by a leader whose credentials have long since passed muster.
Yuri Temirkanov is at the end of his fourth season as music director of the Baltimore Symphony and it was obvious last night that he has now made it his own. The opening phrases of this elephantine work (originally, the 5th was labeled the “Giant”, but this appellation has withered over time) intoned by the trumpets were slower than any version that I have ever heard (and that’s quite a few: see above). This surprising orchestra from the provinces was able to sustain Maestro’s glacial tempo throughout the movement, a feat at which other ensembles have tried (at a slightly faster pace) but have generally failed. On this same stage four years ago, the Vienna Philharmonic under Maazel attempted a similar march step, but individual members rebelled unconsciously and the phrasing was a hotchpotch of differing pulses (probably Mahler’s own orchestra had simply played the piece too often for this type of radical plastic surgery). Temirkanov’s uncompromising beat worked well in this first, funereal movement, the thoughts of mourning and ceremony allowed to develop without the hurry of the outside world.
Performing the work so slowly was also effective in the famous adagietto, the strings of the ensemble perhaps at a bit higher a level of professionalism than their brethren, and able to emote deeply and fully the dirgelike quality of this mysterious movement, satisfying the cathartic needs of the audience although sacrificing what, by all scholarly accounts, was the composer’s own much faster tempo denoting infatuation with Alma Schindler. The balances were superb in this movement for strings and harp alone, the overall sound the most fulsome of the evening. The insistence of the director on reading the entire symphony so slowly was, however, disconcerting in the third movement, the ersatz concerto. The soloist (one of my first chair friends has taken to calling his instrument the “liberty horn” during the current global unpleasantness) was able to enunciate in a clear voice throughout, but the O.J. in the Bronco tempo sounded forced and mannered in spots, throwing off the phrasing decisions and chopping normally flowing melodies into bleeding chunks of stillborn possibilities. At the end of the day though, the greater good was the personal touch of the conductor, offering us a new take on what has become an old chestnut.
Elisabeth Batiashvili has a great deal of energy and communicates this vim and vigor both visually (she literally bounces up and down whilst performing) and musically. Her unbridled version of the Prokofieff would have been much more appreciated if the orchestra were on the same page, however there were at least four major instances when her enthusiasm took her off on flights of inverted rubato where she sped on alone, leaving her mates in the dust. Here the venerable conductor must be put squarely to task, as he seemed unconcerned (or unaware) of these rifts and riffs, blissfully plodding on with the originally established cadence. Ms. B also has some problems of accuracy, one particularly jarring mistake in the moderato left to twist in the wind as an unavoidably sustained note. Hers is a full and burnished tone and an impressive level of confidence, but perhaps a little more emphasis on fundamentals should still be in her practice regimen.
Curious how the symphonies of Mahler have weathered their first 100 years. Mostly premiered by the composer, they were at first inextricably linked to his own mercurial personality and artistic politics, open to criticism on a personal basis, not just in the anti-Semitic Viennese press, but elsewhere in Europe. After his death, a small but dedicated group of friends and supporters kept the vision alive, a coterie who disseminated his works throughout the world, particularly in America where both Walter and Klemperer settled. Politics again intervened, the Nazi authorities not only banning his music over there, but making it almost impossible to secure it elsewhere (Serge Koussevitzsky, trying to mount a performance in Massachusetts, was told that the parts to the 6th had all been destroyed in what would turn out to be a fictitious fire). By the 1950’s Mahler’s reputation as a madman was generally accepted, the Hollywood-style crazy Herr Professor. But somewhere deep in the basement of his own New York Philharmonic, Mahler’s music was resurrected first by Dmitri Mitropoulos and then Leonard Bernstein. Lenny’s series of LP’s in the early 1960’s led to an explosion of Mahleriana whose shockwaves are still felt today. Now all nine plus symphonies and the various song cycles are revered and treasured, performed so often as to have supplanted many others, proving true the motto of the composer that “our time will come” (the plural referring also to his mentor Anton Bruckner). Mahler has become as much of a staple in the concert hall as his own favorite Mozart. Hopefully in future, his works can better avoid the pitfalls of popularity, redundancy and cliché.
Frederick L. Kirshnit