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Friday, May 13, 2016

Concert Review: The Cooke, the Pianist, the Wife and her Mahler

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The top of his game: Yannick Nézet-Séguin onstage at Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2016 Chris Lee, Photographer.
The history of the Philadelphia Orchestra is one of a willingness to experiment with repertory and to perform works that lie outside the mainstream of a great composer's catalogue. On Wednesday night, the Orchestra and its music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin gave its last Carnegie Hall concert of the current season. The program paired Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1, that composer's Op. 1, with Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 10, presented in a version completed in the 1960s and revised in 1976.

The soloist for the Rachmaninoff was Lang Lang, the fleet-fingered Chinese pianist whose onstage affectations sometimes overshadow his actual playing. Here, Mr. Lang played the solo part in the first movement with flashy arpeggios and an exuberance that reminded the listener that this concerto was first written when Rachmaninoff was a 17-year old conservatory student.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia players provided a warm and resonant accompaniment, but it was in support of a performance that grew more florid and less convincing as the concerto wore on. Mr. Lang took a light-weight approach to the central movement, and his flashy style dominated the finale. The cadenzas were thrilling stunts but the entire peformance was one of style over substance. The pianist then obliged his fans with an encore, a glittering Dance of the Coral by the Chinese composer Mingxin Du.

The Symphony No. 10 in F minor is the last piece that Mahler worked on before his death in 1911. When the composer died, he left a completed first movement, a partial orchestration of the short third movement, and folders containing short scores for each of the three remaining movements. In the 1960s, musicologist Deryck Cooke obtained the approval of the composer's widow Alma to finish orchestrating the sketches, creating a performing version of the piece. But debate still rages as to whether the completed Tenth is "really" Mahler's work.

The performance here can only fuel that debate. It started well, with the conductor waiting for stragglers to seat themselves before signalling the violas to begin the slow first movement. Three thematic ideas alternated and wound together before climaxing in an enormous nine-note chord, a grating, grinding sound that stood for the turmoil in the composer's personal life and a new musical frontier only hinted at in his Seventh and Ninth Symphonies.

There are two Scherzo movements, flanking a central movement marked Purgatorio. The first of these is rhythmically complex, shifting time signatures even more frequently than the first movement of the Seventh. Although Mr. Nézet-Séguin put in great effort, the tricky outer sections of this movement did not quite cohere. A lyrical central trio section was better, as was the following Purgatorio which is a short movement that takes place in perpetual motion.

The fourth movement whirled and capering its way to another atonal climax before the dance is interrupted by the dry thud of a funeral drum. This muffled thump is a terrifying sound, a distant echo of the hammer-blow from the Sixth Symphony. The last movement followed attacca, with Mr. Nézet-Séguin leading an exploration of these outermost reaches of the Mahler catalogue. The work ended with a long, slow final Adagio, but one couldn't help but wonder how much of the effort was Mahler and how much was that of Cooke.

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