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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Concert Review: ...And Carry a Small Stick

Valery Gergiev conducts Debussy, Schubert and Mahler.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
An intense moment with Valery Gergiev.
Photo © 2017 Mariinsky Opera.
Any concert under the leadership of Valery Gergiev can be an uncertain affair. His unconventional conducting style, with fingers a-tremble, an impetuous beat and miniscule baton (sometimes no bigger than a toothpick!) gets results, and they're always at least worth writing about. On  Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, Mr. Gergiev, the newly installed principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic led his troops in exploration of Debussy, Schubert and Mahler, using his unique podium style to offer fresh and yes, successful insight into these three different composers. For this concert, he used a conventional, (although small) baton.

At first glance, Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune stands far outside the Gergiev comfort zone. This touchstone work launched the impressionist movement in music, replacing conventional thematic development with will o'the wisp themes and diaphanous chords: not so much a revolutionary brickbat as a silky trap that ensnared and bewitched the mind with its unconventional approach. The first note hung suspended in the air before strings and a harp finally responded Mr. Gergiev seemed to revel in Debussy's swirl of textures, helped by the strong spotlight performances from flute and solo horn.

Of the major 19th century composers who died young, it is perhaps the loss of Franz Peter Schubert at just 31 that still hits the hardest. His Symphony No. 4 (dubbed the "Tragic" by its 19-year-old auteur does not have the pathos of the Schwanengesang songs or the magnificent final String Quintet but it is a skilfully constructed work that deserves more airings alongside the more famous symphonies that come later in the cycle.

Mr. Gergiev made a good case for frequent performances of this work, which, despite its label emerges from a C minor angst into Haydn-like sunniness in its later movements. This was Gergiev the classicist, keeping his tendency toward free rhythmic interpretation under strict control and letting this superb German orchestra go about its business as he turned the pages. The strings and horns were particularly thrilling in the first movement, playing with fresh energy as if eager to present this unfamiliar work to the crowd.

A mid-paced Andante may be one of the finest slow movements that Schubert, a master of expressing musical suffering ever created. It was followed by a cheery Scherzo, the first hint that this "Tragic" work would end on a more upbeat note. Indeed, one could not help but admire the architecture of the finale, arching upward toward a triumphant finish, with Mr. Gergiev and his players guiding the listener through these vaults built from a complex series of orchestral variations.

Dying young is also featured in Mahler's Symphony No. 4, which ends with a song about happy well-fed children playing the afterlife. This work suffers from the opposite problem as Schubert's. Commentators regularly present the Fourth as the composer's "lightest" work, an easy mistake because it uses a slightly smaller orchestra than its bigger brothers. However, this four-movement meditation on the meaning of the afterlife packs a heavy punch. The Munich players seemed aware of this deep meaning, even as Mr. Gergiev led them through the steeplechase of short musical segments and time changes that make its first movement a treacherous course for even the most experienced conductor.

The death metaphors surface in the Scherzo, where a solo violinist (playing a half pitch off from the rest of the orchestra, conjures the image of Death tuning its fiddle and playing souls to the afterlife. The third movement was magnificent and serene, rising to a series of great climaxes powered by percussion and brass. At the last of these, soprano Genia Kühmeier, entered to sing "Der himmlische leben" light and plangent tone. Mahler forced her to compete with Mr. Gergiev and the orchestra, who offering slashing, rondo-like commentary between each verse of this song, a cruel design that is perhaps the point of this disturbing final movement.

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