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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Concert Review: Mariinsky Splits Mahler Twin Bill

For any experienced international orchestra, the performance of a Mahler symphony is a difficult feat. These are long, complex works, which make great demands on soloists. They require tight ensemble playing and a firm hand from the conductor. Sunday's afternoon concert at Carnegie Hall, which featured the Mariinsky Orchestra playing Mahler's Symphony No. 4 followed by the Symphony No. 1 was an endurance test for the road-hardened Russian musicans.
Valery Gergiev: "OK, guys. Let's play two!"

The results were mixed.

Valery Gergiev's idiosyncratic approach to tempo was well-suited to the Fourth, Mahler's shortest symphony. (Since only two of its four movements meditate on death, it is also one of his more cheerful works!) The Mariinsky strings dominated the first movement, with its distinctly Viennese dance melody interrupted by bright winter sleigh-bells. The concertmaster picked up a second fiddle (tuned a step higher) to play the "Freund Hein" solo part in the second movement. The Adagio was all light textures, dreamily played until it rose to a mighty climax.

The orchestra was joined by soprano soloist Anastasia Kalagina for the finale. This setting of the Wunderhorn song Das himmlische Lieben offers a child's perspective on the afterlife. Ms. Kalagina (who also featured in Wednesday's performance of the Mahler Eighth), sang the innocent melodies with sweet, charming tone. Mr. Gergiev handled the orchestra's instrumental interjections in a brusque way. The returning sleigh-bells sounded like an alarm call, underlining the morbid subtext of the poem.

To perform the Mahler First, the Mariinsky horns were doubled to eight players. However, the four who had performed both works sounded tired and suffered from intonation problems. At their lowest register, they produced an unpleasant, watery tone. Mr. Gergiev set a fearsome pace for the opening movement, as if Mahler's presentation of the natural world bored him and he wanted to reach its climax as quickly as possible.

This rushed approach carried through the entire symphony. The Ländler sounded more like an Alpine aerobics class than an Austrian peasant dance. However, the strings produced lovely, transparent textures in the central trio.
The funeral march (with its famous use of the children's tune "Frere Jacques") was played loudly and taken at an unsafe speed. The interpolated "band" music (that interrupts the funeral procession) kept accelerating at random.

In the final movement, Mr. Gergiev steered his forces between quiet lulls and huge eructations of orchestral noise. The woodwinds evoked the bird-songs from the first movement. The horns whooped and hollered. The final, difficult horn solo was bungled by a player with tired lips. The clashing percussion took over as the players fought to be heard. The horns rose to their feet in order to play louder. Finally, the whole thing clattered to a stop, and the Mahler marathon was over.

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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.