A Raft of Orchestras

by Sedgwick Clark

Rattle/Berlin’s Bruckner and Mahler

People used to equate Bruckner and Mahler (their music is both long and loud, after all). And those who heard Simon Rattle lead the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in Bruckner’s Ninth (2/24) and Mahler’s “Resurrection” (2/25) symphonies in such close proximity should have been able to tell the differences at once. Overall, tempos were well chosen and Rattle eschewed the confounding manipulation of pace and phrase that has marred much of his work in the standard repertoire.

Indeed, the Bruckner was one of the finest performances I’ve heard of the symphony in recent years. Rattle’s firm focus on the long line and pacing of climaxes was unerring, and unlike many conductors he never shortchanged the composer’s pauses or sustained whole notes. Even if Bruckner’s innig indications—“intimate,” “heartfelt”—and traditional spirituality seemed a bit underplayed, Rattle’s interpretive mastery was mightily impressive.

The evening’s importance was further marked by the U.S. premiere of a “performance version by Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca, 1983-2011” of the symphony’s projected fourth movement, left unfinished at Bruckner’s death in 1896. The 1903 premiere of the Ninth claimed it to be emotionally sufficient in three movements. Wrong, maintains John Phillips in the program booklet: “Bruckner left the movement very largely complete.” Some pages were missing, he admits, “But in most all cases, Bruckner’s preliminary sketches enabled us to reconstruct an accurate picture of the musical continuity, and the fully orchestrated sections showed clearly how Bruckner intended it to sound.”

“Intended” is the key word. One can acknowledge and study the achievement but still realize that melodically the material is eminently forgettable, mediocre, not up to anything in the sublime first three movements. Quite unlike Mahler’s inspiration in his unfinished Tenth—so brilliantly revealed by Deryck Cooke’s “performing version”—this movement detracts from the first three. All serious Brucknerites will have to acquire Rattle’s recording of the four-movement Ninth when EMI releases it in May, but I’ll bet most listeners will opt out of the finale after a single hearing.

Rattle’s Mahler Second (“Resurrection”) was a disappointment from its mushy opening attacks to the inaudibility of the tam-tam and organ on the final page. Those who know his recording will not be surprised with his tempos, and except for a couple of hasty accelerandos I found them unobjectionable. I especially liked his lilting second-movement Andante moderato (Bernstein’s least successful movement). But some of his choices—the first movement’s huge climax at the end of the second development and his adherence to the score’s wrong-headed Tempo 1indication at movement’s end (and he is by no means alone in these instances)—were ponderous and unintuitive. The offstage horns in the finale were placed outside the balcony but could have sounded even farther away. My Carnegie touchstones for this effect are the Indianapolis Symphony’s “Resurrection” under John Nelson and Julius Rudel’s Buffalo Philharmonic performance of Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied—both in 1980—in which the offstage instruments in the latter sounded as if they were playing full tilt from the middle of Central Park. Stupendous! But Rattle gave full power to the gigantic crescendo in the finale, and the offstage-right brass episode was well balanced and quite exciting.

The Times’s Anthony Tommasini wrote in his review of the first of the orchestra’s three concerts that “it is fascinating how even with so many new and younger members, the character of the orchestra remains.” Sorry, sitting in Row T across from Tony in the parquet, I don’t hear it. Few of the instrumentalists appear old enough to have played under Karajan. Their sound under Rattle, to my ears, is powerful yet coarse in texture and opaque in tuttis, with little of the sensuous beauty and rich, organ-like sonority cultured by the elder maestro. And the purely technical quality of the BPO’s playing appeared at least partially dependent upon which of the three First Concertmasters was playing. In retrospect, the Bruckner’s excellent performance seemed in large part due to Daishin Kashimoto’s attentive cues, whereas the schlamperei of the ensemble in the Mahler seemed mirrored in Daniel Stabrawa’s less-heedful demeanor.

Maazel Mauls Sibelius

The young Lorin Maazel recorded a Sibelius symphony cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic for Decca between 1963 and ’68, and the septuagenarian Maazel’s Carnegie Hall concert with the VPO on March 2 might have been seen by the hopeful as a return to the best of those efforts: Nos. 3, 4, and 6. No such luck. Played at this concert were Nos. 1, 5, and 7, and the performances were bloated (7 and 5 each gaining more than five minutes over the recordings, to no end save tedium), spottily played (5 and 1), and littered with Maazelisms (most pronounced in the first movement of 1 and the exaggerated though precisely played distention of the final six chords of 5). Coming after his spectacular traversal of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony with the New York Phil last October, a distinct disappointment.

Honeck’s Tchaik 5 Sears the Ears

Two years ago, the Pittsburgh Symphony under Music Director Manfred Honeck sounded in Mahler’s First as if every instrument had its separate microphone. I vowed never to attend another concert by him, but I was in town for Rattle and Berlin and my legendary sense of fairness won out. On Sunday afternoon (2/26) in Avery Fisher Hall the Pittsburgh sonority was far more unified. The New York premiere of Steven Stucky’s17-minute celebration of Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, seemed a hit with both audience and players. While all the water clichés of the past appeared unavoidable (my ears were boating in Giverny, but Allan Kozinn in the Times heard Jackson Pollack as a “visual analogue”), Stucky’s tonal idiom and masterful orchestration were a balm to the senses. Honeck and the PSO were flypaper accompanists to Hilary Hahn’s dietetic Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1.  If heartless Tchaikovsky is your preference, Honeck’s awesomely drilled Fifth Symphony after intermission filled the bill. The whiplash tempos, wide dynamics, and slashing attacks were undeniably impressive, but one felt brutalized. Moreover, his flashy conducting style actually encouraged the audience to applaud prematurely in the dramatic pause before the finale’s coda. Not even the encore, Khachaturian’s already-virtuosic Galop from Masquerade, escaped Honeck’s teeth-grinding excess. The audience went wild.

Don’t Miss St. Louis

Alas, I can’t get to everything. I’ll be out of town on Saturday (3/10) when David Robertson leads his St. Louis Symphony in a fabulous program of Debussy’s early Printemps, Kaija Saariaho’s shimmering Quatre Instants, sung by Karita Mattila, and Stravinsky’s complete Firebird ballet. (By the way, all of these musicians were Musical America awardees: Conductor, Composer, Musician, and Musician, respectively.)

Comments are closed.