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Brush with Greatness

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/03/1999 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony #5
Vienna Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel (conductor)

Every fall the hottest ticket in town is to one of the Vienna Philharmonic concerts at Carnegie Hall. Traditionally this all-male bastion of Central European conservatism performs three times in one weekend and sells out months in advance. The ticket scalpers were in their glory on 57th Street this afternoon for the last of these performances devoted to but one work: the Symphony #5 of the orchestra's one-time music director Gustav Mahler. Hearing this monumental effort performed by the composer's own orchestra in the hall where he reigned supreme in the last years of the first decade of the twentieth century was an occasion charged with historical associations and the almost exclusively German speaking crowd also recalled those bygone New York days when the opera or the concert hall was predominately a German or an Italian "house". All of the elements were there to produce a fine afternoon of music making and although the performance was certainly on a high level, somehow "great" was not an adjective that I would be inclined to use in describing this event.

Firstly, the Vienna Philharmonic string sound is pedestrian. It is not burnished like the Concertgebouw nor silken like Berlin. It is not lush like Cleveland or Philadelphia (I will be hearing this same symphony in Philadelphia later this month and am already anxious to compare the blended sonorities of that orchestra's string section to this rather bland ensemble). The brass section and particularly the horns are tremendous in this Austrian import and this served this symphony, once nicknamed the "Giant", well but combined with the strings the effect was only very good. Of course the Vienna forces still tower over our hapless New York Philharmonic, but I would have thought by their press and devoted following that they would be at a still higher level than they actually were.

The other major problem was Maestro Maazel's conception of the work. I am well aware of his propensity to be the world's slowest conductor of Mahler and have truly enjoyed his deliberately paced 2nd and 7th performances. In the first movement of the 5th I was willing to go along with the funereal pace (after all it is a Trauermarsch) but by the second movement, played without a pause after the first, I began to think of Mahler's favorite score direction: nicht schleppend (don't drag) and the very fact that I was concentrating on this warning made me realize that I was not being transformed by the music itself.

The third movement was saved somewhat by the horn playing of Wolfgang Tomboeck Jr. and his colleagues. Maazel showed an appreciation for the "bridge structure" architecture of this large tonal canvas by performing this fulcrum-like movement as a stand-alone piece so that there were three distinct sections to the symphony: movements one and two, movement three, and movements four and five (again played without pause). All well and good but still a bit draggy. However, I consoled myself with the thought that the amazingly beautiful Adagietto for Harp and Strings which is the fourth movement would be heart-meltingly slow (Maazel's recording with this orchestra is the slowest of all).

Always full of surprises, Maestro proceeded to conduct the Adagietto at a relatively fast Allegretto pace, more like the "authentic" versions recorded by Bruno Walter and implicitly copied from Mahler's own conducting style. This performance was actually quite moving and the tears in my eyes attested to my appreciation, but it certainly did not fit the rest of the conception presented to us today. The finale was unsure of its own architecture, proceeding in fits and starts of erratic tempi. This was far from a bad performance, but also a long way from the excellence that I had expected.

Perhaps making matters worse by contrast, the orchestra performed a truly rousing version of the Vorspiel from Die Meistersinger as an encore. This was indeed a great performance and very well received by the Austrian-American throng, but only served to reinforce my opinion that the Mahler was not as good as it could have been. Also disturbing was the programming of only one work, requiring that latecomers be seated after the second movement (the end of the first part in Maazel's conception) which was particularly disruptive for those of us who showed up on time. Since they were willing to stay and play Wagner for us, why not program an overture at the beginning to avoid this awkward, mood-destroying moment? Sometimes it's the little details which keep good performances from achieving a level of greatness.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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