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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Concert Review: Mahler in Miniature with Sir Colin Davis

Sir Colin Davis
The New York Philharmonic continued its year-long celebration of Gustav Mahler's 150th birthday with a dozen of Mahler's songs based on poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The concert marked the welcome return of Sir Colin Davis, who served five years as the Philharmonic's principal guest conductor.

Published in 1808, Des Knaben Wunderhorn is a collection of German poems that explore humor, folklore and the tragedies of everyday life. Mahler set a number of these poems as songs, incorporating some of those settings into his first four symphonies. He also wrote these twelve individual lieder, proving that this master of the massive symphony was also adept at creating small, even intimate works that are still powered by a mighty orchestra.

The songs featured two distinguished soloists: soprano Dorothea Roschmann and tenor Ian Bostridge. Ms. Roschmann has a rich, pleasing soprano, with enough flexibility to maintain her sweet timbre even when her instrument is put under pressure. Her skill as a singing actress came into play for the tragic "The Earthly Life" and the misty "Little Rhine Legend. And she interpolated convincing (and intentional) cuckoo-calls and donkey brays into "Praise of a Lofty Intellect", which places the latter animal in the enviable role of a music critic.

Mr. Bostridge has a fine instrument, suited to baroque works, classical opera and lieder. And he is a good actor. However, the tenor struggled with the first work on the program: "The Sentinel's Night Song". He was consistently drowned out by the swelling sound of the Philharmonic at several points, and sounded out of his depth.

Things improved for Mr. Bostridge during the famous "St. Anthony's Sermon to the Fishes." Sir Colin responded to the dynamic problems, damping down the Philharmonic forces. Throughout the cycle, his recovery continued. he finished strong with moving accounts of "Reveille" and "The Drummer Boy," sad tales of the oppressions of military life.

Mr. Bostridge and Ms. Röschmann have long experience working together, which certainly helped the songs which require dialogue between the singers. "Labor Lost" was a comic exercise in romantic futility, with the two soloists engaging in a little stage business to make this an entertaining highlight. For the final "Where the Fair Trumpets Sound", Mahler's exceptional orchestration and the two singers brought a warm glow to this tale of a soldier going off to war.

The Mahler works were paired with Beethoven's Second Symphony. This is the least performed and least known of the composer's famous Nine. Under Sir Colin's directon, the Philharmonic played the four movements with warm string tone and rhythmic precision. However, it is likely that the next Philharmonic performance of the Second will come when the work is paired with one of its bigger, more famous brothers.

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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.