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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Concert Review: A Tour of the Universe

Bernard Haitink conducts Mahler's Symphony No. 3.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The conductor Bernard Haitink.
Photo © 2014 Medici.Tv,
At 100 minutes and six movements, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 3 in D Minor is the largest and longest symphony in the standard repertory. With the aid of two choirs, offstage instruments and an alto soloist, the work attempts to depict creation itself, moving through a vast cosmology from the mountains erupting out of the earth to the all-but-unfathomable love of a higher being.

On Saturday night in the last of three performances this season, the 85-year-old Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink showed why he retains pride of place as one of the world's greatest Mahlerians. Mr. Haitink employed the combined forces of the New York Philharmonic, the women of the New York Choral Artists, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and alto soloist Bernarda Fink to re-create Mahler's sound-world, and at the same time expose the rigorous musical logic in a work that is too-often described as "sprawling."

The opening shout of eight horns and the shuffled taps on the bass drum establish the musical material early on, putting opposing forces in conflict in service of the generation of music. Everything from this point is repetition, exposition and development of the themes that will serve as the bedrock upon which Mahler builds his cathedral of sound. Low brasses and contrabassoon muttered and growled, depicting bursts of lava from the earth and the violent birth of new mountains. Mahler answers this with a march for winds and percussion that finally turns manic, the spirit of nature bursting forth in bright major chords..

Under Mr. Haitink, this enormous structure was taut, focused and beautiful in its elemental power. The Philharmonic players responded with robust horn playing and a sweeping carpet of strings, the orchestra sounding focused and intent. The march strutted and swung, finally rising to a tremendous fortissimo before crashing into an enormous, dissonant chord. At that point the "marching band" picked itself up and recapitulated the entire opening statement, led by the chorus of horns and bulidling quickly to a second, hall-shaking climax.

The second half of the symphony (the remaining five movements) starts with a gentle Menuet, featuring the violas and oboes in a portrait of a flowery meadow. This music hearkens back to Mahler's early work, an idyllic portrait with a hint of menace from the first movement. A sense of urgency permeated the Scherzo, a depiction of animals at play with pointed writing for the oboe, bassoon and horn. Mr. Haitink was positively light-footed here, contrasting all the frenetic orchestral activity with a gentle trio and offstage solo for the flugelhorn.

The next element in Mahler's universe is humanity itself, in the presence of alto Bernarda Fink. The slow, rolling setting of "O mensch, gibt Acht!" from Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra used elements from the first movement, the initial earthquakes returning in a more controlled manner under a carpet of low strings. Ms. Fink sounded the portentous words with deep and somber tone, although a little more power was needed to make this single human voice truly overwhelming.

She remained standing for the following movement, a joyful shout for chorus and a depiction of heavenly joys built around "Es sungen drei Engel", one of Mahler's beloved Wunderhorn songs. The ringing chimes and sweet-voiced choristers evoked a better, higher sphere of existence, contrasting with Ms. Fink's portrayal of an earth-bound, terrified  penitent, comforted by the word of God in the person of the two choruses.

This led into the last movement without break, a massive Adagio. Under Mr. Haitink, this slow movement had an inexorable logic, moving gradually from the strings to a thunderous appearance of the whole orchestra. Concluding in a blaze of orchestral light with the two timpanists breaking into the perfect fifths of Richard Strauss' own setting of Zarathustra, this finale achieved a grandeur and perfection atop the mountains built in the first movement.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.