Mahler’s Forest, Thomas’s Trees
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
03/26/2010 - & March 11, 12, 13, 14 (San Francisco), 20 (Ann Arbor), 23 (Philadelphia), 2010
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection"
Laura Claycomb (Soprano), Katarina Karnéus (Mezzo-Soprano)
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller (Conductor), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (Music Director and Conductor)
M. Tilson Thomas (© Terrence McCarthy)
Michael Tilson Thomas may be the master of the grand gesture, the sweeping landscape. But in the spacious outlines of Mahler’s great Second Symphony, I was more impressed with individual moments, seemingly insignificant measures than the work as a whole.
This is not to say that the “Resurrection” symphony (a name, by the way, not appended by the composer) wasn’t a resounding success. Give its huge chorus, mammoth orchestra, two excellent soloists and all the grand German-Victorian harmonies which young Mahler had mastered, nobody can fail to be moved. The resources themselves–off-stage trumpet calls from both directions, a cappella singing rising up to the heavens, and some terrific orchestral interludes at the end, with the Big Bang finish, and the Second Symphony is irresistible.
Yet the more I hear it (mainly on inadequate recordings, since performances are rare here), the more I hear a very simple Mahler statement, with obvious Bruckner themes, with measures that could come from Wagner or Humperdinck (Mahler was indeed once going to write Hansel and Gretel). This was music of grandiose architecture with a confident master builder in charge. The mysterious, enigmatic Mahler, was to be offered much later.
Which is why I was so intrigued with Mr. Thomas’s mess prominent moments. I was most fascinated, in fact, with the “leisured, never hurried” second movement, which is usually played like a happy, even naive ländler dance. Mr. Thomas never went in that direction. This was a spectral poetry, a remembrance of themes past. The theme was played too softly, a wee bit off tempo, as if trying to gain the right footing. Yet just because of that one felt a mirage of music rather than light Austrian foot-tapping. With the repeat, that same theme played pizzicato, gliding over the music, one felt again that this music was not real, it was an unformed idea. And in that sense, Mr. Thomas produced almost a mirage of music.
The next great moment was Swedish mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus singing Urlicht. I couldn’t have imagined any more sensitive voice, any tones which could rise up so unerringly in a song which was one of Mahler’s loveliest. Yes, this was the introduction to the great chorus to come. But Ms. Karnéus was singing more than a song. Each syllable of the “Primal Light” was separate, a prism of separate lights, with the hues later merged for the final chorus.
Before that, the San Francisco Symphony gave it their utmost with nary a fluff. By “utmost”, I don’t mean boundless energy. Mr. Thomas kept his energies in reserve. The violins and violas opened with tremulous attention, the cellos practically roared out their fanfares (do cellos have fanfares?), but from then on, Mr. Thomas gave us musical scenes which were gripping but which changed from minute to minute.
Does this mean that there was no flow in the first movement? Yes, but neither ebb nor flow was necessary. Mahler was depicting death, and nothing is romantic about the Final Call. The landscape was too vast to grasp it all, but the landmarks were prominent.
It goes without saying that the Westminster Choir is a splendid group, and their hundred-odd voices gave all the impetus for a splendid finale. In a way, though, this finale was like so much written at that time, from Boito’s Mefistofele prelude to Elgar’s Gerontius. This is of course unfair, since Mahler trumps lesser composers easily. But by playing the preceding movements so carefully, Mr. Thomas not only produced a splendid symphony, but we could appreciate the earthliness of the heavenly conception, while visualizing, touching and inhaling the trees through Mahler’s forest.