CARNEGIE HALL | Mahler’s Rückert Lieder & Symphony #5

[the Scherzo from Mahler’s 5th in ms at the Morgan Library]

Sunday, May 10, 2009 at 2 PM
STAATSKAPELLE BERLIN, cond. Daniel Barenboim
Thomas Quasthoff, Bass-Baritone

MAHLER | Rückert Lieder & Symphony No. 5

Daniel Barenboim resumed the podium this afternoon for an indefatigable account of Mahler’s Fifth, following Pierre Boulez’s three-night vigil through the Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies (just reviewed in the NYT). Opening with the five 1901-1902 Rückert Lieder, the program also brought back Thomas Quasthoff, whose delicate phrasings were again affecting, if in an abated capacity compared to his Kindertotenlieder Wednesday night.

In contrast to the common tragic theme in Kindertotenlieder, the wayfarer persona persisting through Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, and the shared chinoiserie source-material of Das Lied von der Erde, any principle of unity among the Rückert Lieder is less obvious or organic; they comprise rather a sort of medley, diverse in moods and meanings. A self-possessed humility and taciturn ardor are revealed through the lingering lines of “Liebst du um Schönheit,” for instance, whereas the brisk “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” cajoles in a spirited, almost impish manner. And while the hymn-like resolution of “Um Mitternacht” feels confirmed by the score, however hard-won, the final tranquility of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” may still suggest resigned receding more than beatific transcendence, the protagonist having found no real refuge either from or in his Weltschmerz. If one feels compelled now to sketch some such contours of difference, it is because Mr. Quasthoff’s restrained handling of these Lieder did not do enough to. Due to occasional pitch pressures met in the upper range, moreover, and given what seemed to be general constraints on upper volume, the songs rarely came alive. What did become still clearer today is Quasthoff’s admirable sensitivity to minute gradations of quiet. This gift is not without its perils: in the final moments of “Um Mitternacht”—timpani and brass joining sung declaration of faith in chorale-like apotheosis—it became uncertain whether human voice could here survive, much less be buoyed by, the rising architecture of concomitant sound. But it was precisely this gift, too, that lent affecting subtlety to the stillnesses and subdual of the final song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” aided by the excruciating attentiveness of the orchestra. Barenboim and the Staatskapelle are to be commended for taking noticeable care in supporting and tracing Quasthoff’s phrasings overall—a few discrepancies of timing notwithstanding—and they achieved particularly beautiful results during the attenuated, gleaming passages concluding “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.”

The reception of Barenboim’s opening effort this cycle, Mahler’s First on Wednesday, ranged largely from scolding to skeptical (at least among those who’ve written about it). But what was sacrificed in scrupulousness that evening, in my opinion, was more than made up for in vigor and exhilaration. Today’s account of the Fifth certainly came off more cleanly, and at its best moments acquired inexorable propulsion. At times, though, the orchestra would have benefited from a clearer unifying directive. In both Mahler appearances thus far, Barenboim has demonstrated that he has definite ideas about beginnings: almost each movement under his leadership begins with a sense of concentration and with promise. He has also proven much energized when carrying momentum toward an ending, and this infuses additional energy into the orchestra. Many a middle stretch of this Fifth, however, seemed left to the musicians themselves, with Barenboim throwing himself into what was transpiring rather than administering the events or even much influencing them. The default license thereby granted to the players, or the implicit faith placed in them, by turns benefited the music and cost it. During the Trauermarsch and Scherzo sections, for instance, the strings sometimes seemed hastened and the woodwinds pressed by the broad gestures issued from the podium, whereas the orchestra’s collective efforts in the Rondo-Finale came together in glorious summation—in no small part due to today’s dependable brass showing. The crucial, consistent highlight of the concert was the meticulous Adagietto, at moderate tempo and unsentimental, yet shimmering in self-evident beauty.

Midway now through a demanding cycle, and so understandably, the spectre of fatigue began to haunt this performance, even as the struggle against it was steadfastly heroic and always sufficed. (Pauses between movements this time were less interpretive effects than necessary, visible breaks for breath-taking and brow-wiping.) This week the musicians will have two nights off from performing, though not likely from rehearsing. One is heartened by their fortitude, and hopes for a renewal also of focus.

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