CARNEGIE HALL | Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder & Symphony #1

younger Gustav

Wednesday, May 6, 2009 at 8 PM
STAATSKAPELLE BERLIN, cond. Daniel Barenboim
Thomas Quasthoff, Bass-Baritone

MAHLER | Kindertotenlieder & Symphony No. 1

Last night began the Staatskapelle Berlin’s much-anticipated, ten-part Mahler symphonic and song cycle at Carnegie Hall. Three Maestros ‘B’ are here involved or invoked: conducted alternatingly by Boulez and Barenboim (the Staatskapelle’s General Music Director, and in 2000 honored as its ‘Conductor for Life’), these concerts coincide with a new all-Mahler boxed set from Bernstein, that greatest American champion of Mahler whom Carnegie Hall (and indeed all New York) celebrated last fall, on the 50th anniversary of his appointment to directorship of the NY Philharmonic. (A full Bernstein-Mahler set already exists on Deutsche Grammophon—as does, incidentally, a full NY Philharmonic Mahler set wholly sans Lenny—whereas the new issue comes from Sony Masterworks. One will need some thirty uninterrupted hours of listening time to work out comparisons, so that will be for a separate post. But for now let it be said that one feature of the new set is particularly welcome: the radio documentary ‘I Remember Mahler,’ produced by William Malloch in the 1960s, which had been available only and only in part on Mahler Plays Mahler. The addict craves more, however: say, Malloch’s eight-hour ‘Mahlerthon’ from 1975.)

Barenboim had the baton for this opening concert. The heartbreakingly sparse Kindertotenlieder of 1901-1904—its delicate life borne through the years by the likes of contralto Kathleen Ferrier, mezzos Janet Baker and Christa Ludwig, and baritones Fischer-Dieskau and Thomas Hampson—could scarcely have found a more tender custodian than Thomas Quasthoff. Amid the fragile, meandering harmonies of the first song, ‘Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n,’ he wove softly about the instrumental lines, with no presumption of greater prominence, and when the orchestration expanded—there’s nothing like Mahler’s use of harp and strings to delicately unfurl a world—his voice melted into the soundscape. It was in the second song, ‘Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen,’ however, that Quasthoff’s voice blossomed, warm yet vulnerable, carrying us farther into the depths of sorrow. The next two songs proved slightly more challenging: the purity of Quasthoff’s voice hardened a bit amid the top notes, and between him and the orchestra there were moments of strained clamor, as if each vied to back off from vying. Still, with ‘In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus,’ the songs came to an imperturbably luminous close. In this Rückert poem, a father repeats he would never have let his children out in such tempestuous weather, but is gradually forced to realize their demise. His resoluteness would be regret if only he could bring himself to face the actual rather than the ‘would have’—and thus amounts to denial. Quasthoff and Barenboim grasped this with rare exactitude: no mere declarative emoting, they evoked sorrow as trance, as necessary and even self-annihilating dream, during which the slow, pained movement toward truth can still take place only in the realm of grammar. Occasional imperfections aside, this performance feelingly captured the desolation and inconsolable melancholy of these Lieder. Bare of familiarly lyrical flourishes or default aggrandizing of the soloist, it ushered us with care into Mahler’s world—which, after all, is a world subtending the expressible, however exuberantly or eloquently expressed.

Quashoff’s rendition here was long-anticipated; two winters ago, his Carnegie Hall appearance for these Lieder with the Philadelphia Orchestra was cancelled due to illness. Ovations abound, the audience last night did not hold back its gratitude.

Hopes were surely high after intermission, and the Staatskapelle’s rendition of the First Symphony brought hope closer to faith. The first movement began with a deliberateness that bordered on tenuous, but in the process let some details surface afresh for the ear, and then burst into fulgent fullness after the cymbals midway through. Thenceforth the experience seized us and would not let go, from the swooping, swooning dance of the second movement—Maestro Barenboim’s own arms scooping up swathes of air—through the hair-raising finale.

Particular stars that emerged for me last night were the cellos—which had seemed subdued until one realized that their amazingly sensitive volume control pretty much underwrote the success of the entire performance—and principal timpanist Torsten Schönfeld, whose beautifully fluid yet weighted movements were mesmerizing to watch. The woodwinds blessed us with color and audacity aplenty, though occasionally the clarinets risked too much brightness. (Jury’s out on the brass; how will they do tomorrow?) Interestingly, the ensemble seemed precisest when momentum was fiercest. Barenboim’s realization of the score was at once thoughtful and driven—sustaining a sense of contemplative reverie throughout even the most excitable stretches.

One could not help but marvel at the energy, empathy and collective devotion it took for these musicians to bring Mahler’s world to life for us—with all its detailed plenitude, its wistful play at languor, its embrace of everything that is life, however dejecting or calamitous.

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