Death in the Concert Hall

by Sedgwick Clark

Mahler Meets Shostakovich

German baritone Matthias Goerne and Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes performed a fascinating recital of songs by Mahler and Shostakovich at Carnegie Hall on 5/1, all to do with death. Neither composer is Mr. Rogers, but Mahler has been in such vogue for the last 40 years and is such a compelling tunesmith that his dark side and irony are readily accepted. Not so Shostakovich, whose terror under the Stalinist and later regimes and his own increasing physical infirmity late in life produced music of an often uncompromisingly grim nature. For instance, he sets 11 poems about death in his Fourteenth Symphony (1969), and I’ve never attended a performance where elderly audience members didn’t begin exiting halfway through the piece in increasing numbers.

The recitalists chose well, interspersing six of the 11 songs from Shostakovich’s 1974 Michelangelo Suite with ten Mahler songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Rückert-Lieder, and Kindertotenlieder. Andsnes contributed fine, if monochromatic, accompaniments. (I much prefer the orchestral settings.)

But even with the texts in hand, I could barely distinguish a word Goerne was singing. At intermission, I checked with German and Russian friends, and they agreed. He bobbed and weaved disconcertingly, with his eyes nearly always in the score except when the text said “heavens” and he would roll his eyes toward the balcony. When he wasn’t looking at the score, he was looking at the first-tier boxes on audience left. He virtually turned his back on those sad souls sitting in audience right. Recording engineers probably want to nail his feet to the stage and put a neck brace on him. I don’t think that Carnegie’s wet acoustic helped either; if I have to hear him in concert again, I hope it will be at Tully.

Gilbert’s Soft-centered Mahler Sixth

I’ve always thought of Mahler’s Sixth as a hard piece—literally. But in Alan Gilbert’s New York Philharmonic performance at Carnegie on 5/2, there was nary a sharp attack to be heard. There was plenty of expressive shaping and rubato, and the first-movement exposition repeat was played, but Mahler’s “Tragic” Symphony was tapioca to my ears. I don’t remember Gilbert’s Avery Fisher performance two years ago as being mushy, and wonder if Carnegie’s reverberation threw the players off. 

In a practice that is becoming more frequent these days, Gilbert performed the Andante second. For my money, it was especially unsatisfying on this evening because the opening movement had not made its full, crushing effect for the slow movement to serve as a respite: It was more emotionally necessary than ever for the Scherzo’s slashing ferocity to follow the first movement. Mahler only conducted the Sixth twice and never made up his mind definitively, so the controversy will likely never be settled.

Looking forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

5/9 Carnegie Hall, 7:30. “Spring for Music.” New Jersey Symphony/Jacques Lacombe; Hila Plitmann, soprano; Marc-André Hamelin, piano; Men of the Westminster Symphonic Choir. Varèse: Nocturnal. Weill: Symphony No. 1 (“Berliner Symphony”). Busoni: Piano Concerto.

5/10 Carnegie Hall, 7:30. “Spring for Music.” Alabama Symphony/Justin Brown; Susan Grace and Alice Rybak, pianos. Avner Dorman: Astrolatry. Paul Lansky: Shapeshifters for Two Pianos. Beethoven: Symphony No. 7.

5/11Metropolitan Opera, 8:30. Janáček: The Makropoulos Case. Jiři Belohlávek (cond.). Karita Mattila, soprano; Kurt Streit, tenor; Johan Reuter, baritone; Tom Fox, baritone.

5/12 Carnegie Hall, 7:30. “Spring for Music.” Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero; Tracy Silverman, electric violin. Ives: Universe Symphony (Austin ed.). Terry Riley: The Palmian Chord Ryddle for Electric Violin and Orchestra. Grainger: The Warriers.

5/12 Metropolitan Opera, 9:00. Britten: Billy Budd. David Robertson (cond.). John Daszak, tenor; Nathan Gunn, baritone; James Morris, bass-baritone.

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