Issac Stern Audtitorum, Carnegie Hall
Maurice Ravel: Menuet Antique
Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs
Gustav Mahler: Symphony Number 1 in D Major (”The Titan”)
Kelley O’Connor (Mezzo-soprano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (Conductor)
The drama of Peter Lieberson and his wife Lorraine Hunt Leiberson will some day be made into an opera. Lieberson, a sensitive composer who shuns any ”school”, wrote five love elegies from the great Chilean poet specifically for his wife. ”I had never known a singer so unafraid of her emotions”, he said, so able to access trhose emotions and express them”. The songs, taken from hundreds written by Neruda were about love and loss.......
And scarcely two years after their introduction in Boston, Ms. Lieberson died of cancer. To friends, she had appeared raidant until the very end, and the fact that they had been written to her as a love rather than a ”singer” made them even more powerful.
Until recently, no singer has even tried to essay these songs. But Kelley O’Connor, with the agreement of the composer (who was present last night) sung the works with all the beauty that they were worth. There were only two problems. The Chicago Symphony is pretty loud at the best of times, and the resonance of Carnegie Hall sometimes hid her beautiful Spanish. The othe problemwith this is music is that it so personal, so understated, and written with such delicate orchestration that Ms. O’Connor could sound prosaic. This was not her fault, since the music is usually slow, the lines so very fluid that too much emotion can break the spell.
But spell-binding Mr. Lieberson’s song-cycle was. The words, even in translation, have the beauty of an Auden poem but without the brilliant contrivance of the British poet. The music never seems contrived. At times, they had the poignancy of the Strauss Four Last Songs, at times Mahler made its way into the spare orchestration.
The evening had another curiosity: many in the audience were curious why Riccardo Muti had shunned the New York Philharmnonc to take over the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. One answer is simple: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra , under Bernard Haitink, sounded like a better orcehstra. Yes, the volume could be great, but it never sounded brazen. The strings were actually singing for Mr. Haitink, with perfedt phrasing. In all three works, the brass had pianissimo sounds which sounded like they came from offstage (which, of course they did in the Mahler), and the winds were exceptionally beautiful in all three works.
All were shown to advantage in a very rare piece: Ravel’s orchestration in 1929 to his own very early Menuet Antique. It is a popular piano piece, but here the mature Ravel painted it with truly ”antique” colors in the brass, which sounded like an antiphonal Gabrielli work in Venice. It did sound a bit too volumnious for such an elegant piece, but it did show again how careful an orchestrator the composdr could be.
The second half was devoted entirely to Mahler’s First Symphony, where Haitink’s amazing sense of timbre and color were present from the opening bars. Mahler marked them ”like a sound in nature”. But pantheist was he was, Mahler never specified which sound. But the trimbres, the entrances, the fanfares which never shouted but were always full, gave that rarest insight into Mahler’s intimacy.
Haitink has always been scrupulous in following original directions, and that may have been a bit disappointing to those of us who wanted more kitschy strings in the scherzo or more klezmer outlandishness in the famous funeral march. (My favorite peerforamcne was in Asia by the Taipei City Symphony, which turned that funeral parody into a parody of music itself.)
Such a scrupulous reading was all to the good in the last movement, where the orchestra inexorably marched to the last great brass finale. The result was that rarity in Mahler: a work where the warmth and joy of the music transcended those stylistic riddles which Mahler planted, and which it took his meeting with Sigmund Freud to uncover.
CODA: I once asked Edo de Waart about the Dutch penchant for Mahler. Why, even during the composer’s lifetime they had Mahler Festivals. Why Mengelberg, van Beinum, Haitink and de Waart himself were such brilliant Mahler conductors. He didn’t lose a beat in answering,
”Well, we Dutch are not a very neurotic people. Perhaps we want to be a little bit more neurotic.Which is why we like Mahler.”