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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.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Concert Review: Coming Down to Earth

The Royal Concertgebouw plays Bruch and Mahler. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Violinist Janine Jansen played the Bruch Concerto No. 1 at Carnegie Hall
on Thursday night. Photo courtesy Decca/UMG.
The second night of the Royal Concertgebouw's 2018 stand at Carnegie Hall did not scale the same dizzying heights as its first. This performance, led by music director Daniele Gatti featured the Dutch ensemble setting aside the cosmic considerations of Bruckner for the earthier world of a composer that has proved even more popular: Gustav Mahler.

The concert opened with the orchestra joined by violinist Janine Jansen for Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1. Although Bruch is known for a few works (most for violin and orchestra) this concerto is his calling-card, a flowing, contiguous work that retains the form of the concerto over three movements that play without a break. Also challenging: the violin line is a nearly unending monologue: the first movement is more like an extended cadenza over the orchestra rather than traditional concerto structure.

None of these structural oddities fazed Ms. Jansen in the least. Indeed, the lithe violinist leapt into the first movement with alacrity and drive, weaving a silver thread around the prodigious (and sometimes ponderous) blocks of sound coming from the Concertgebouw players. She moved without pause into the slow second movement, spinning lyrical passages with long bow-strokes. The final movement, played after the briefest of pauses was a technical listener's delight, combining this violinist's blend of lyricism and show-stopping technique to thrilling effect.

Mahler's Symphony No. 1 is considered one of his most appealing works. Presented (as usual) in the composer's preferred, shortened form (which eliminates a fifth movement and strips the work of its programmatic subtitle "Titan"), it is a favorite with conductors and audiences. And yet, it is a dangerous, treacherous piece as Mahler's forward-thinking, original ideas create potholes that can bedevil even the finest conductor and orchestra.

Mr. Gatti took a slow approach to the opening, letting the notes of the droning strings breathe at a meditative pace. The bird-songs and folk melodies that come in atop these were also glacial in pace, although the entry of lower strings and percussion saw a substantial acceleration. Indeed, this long movement (which like most of the First is filled with repetitive double-bar passages) moved at a surprisingly quick pace, as if the hoar-frost of the opening had shaken off and nature was bursting to glorious life.

Another eccentric tempo opened the second movement, a quick approach to this Andante that was more like a moderate jog. Here, the Concertgebouw players added the bright splashes of color that come from muted brass and odd percussion. The funeral march (a setting of the childrens' song "Frere Jacques") was slow and solemn before it gave way to wild Ashkenazic celebratory music, a passage that was played with great enthusiasm by the strings and winds.

It was in the massive double finale that the problems arose. Mahler, ever ambitious, calls for a battery of seven horn players to lead the charge, and forces his musical army to storm the same hill of sound twice over the course of a long movement. Maybe it was the sub-freezing temperatures outside, and maybe it was the stress of the weather on the delicate constitution of the horns, but the famed Concertgebouw sound came across as watery and weak. It was not enough to sink this Titan but it made for a less than climactic finish. 

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