Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Kansas City Symphony Mahler 6

“My Sixth seems to be yet another hard nut, one that our critics' feeble little teeth cannot crack.”

So wrote Gustav Mahler to conductor Wilhelm Mengelberg. Mahler's Symphony # 6 in A minor was composed during a more contented period in the composer's life, 1902-1903 but not premiered until 1906. Yet this symphony is among the least affirming of his world encompassing symphonies; it is among his most inward and autobiographical as well. Perhaps because it is a such a tough nut to crack it is, along with Symphony # 7, one of his lesser performed symphonies. With a fine 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th  under their belts, the Kansas City Symphony under the direction of Music Director Michael Stern have added a most stellar 6th to their Mahler cannon.

Stern took the 1st movement at a true allegro, a welcome change from some of the more recent recordings and performances. The opening exposition, while well executed was somewhat short on drama. Certainly fine, but would not challenge the best of performances. The soaring “Alma” theme was not a sticky, sentimental mess, but a heartfelt and maybe even a bit of a flirty statement, well integrated into the somewhat schizophrenic mood of this movement, unique in all of symphonic literature.

The gentle slower middle section benefited from the usual fine winds and strings of the orchestra. Some listeners may like more forward cowbells; Stern correctly had them as a distant texture, maybe too distant at a few points but they served their purpose to take us back to a cold, clear alpine meadow. This interlude is not “a cow looking over a fence” pastoralism, but a wistful and melancholy respite from the martial exposition and recapitulation. Stern brought out this section's often soaring lyricism but never lost touch with the overall dramatic mood of the movement. If the exposition was a bit slack , the recap was all drama and  everything fell into place. Stern did not rush headlong to the end, but kept the pot boiling letting the work move forth as a force of nature, bringing this monumental statement to a dramatic close.

We could debate for hours over the Scherzo/Andante or Andante/Scherzo question. You almost need a score card to keep track of the players who made the switches over the last 107 years. While most of us “grew up” with the Scherzo/Andante order, Mahler only conducted the work Andante/Scherzo. While some say placing the Andante second spoils some harmonic and thematic connections, it also makes sense. It is more structurally correct in this most classical of Mahler's symphonies and expands on the nostalgic mood of the center section of the first movement. The counter argument says Scherzo/Andante is how Mahler conceived the work and is perhaps more psychologically logical. The andante acts as a balancing intermezzo providing a relaxation of tension between the dramatic Allegro/Scherzo and the monumental half-hour finale.

As Kurt Vonnegut always said whenever he was faced with something unsolvable... “so it goes.”

Stern chose the Andante/Scherzo order for this performance. Whatever order one might prefer, suffice to say Stern's Andante was a supreme achievement. Never overwrought or totally sappy, this movement clearly was Mahler's escape from the torment of the opening movement and the tormented and very real life dramas of the scherzo and finale. Yet Stern wisely kept some tension in the phrasing and tempo, reminding us that the edge was not far away. Translucent strings, wonderful oboe, violin, trumpet, horn and clarinet solos combined with the gentle but insistent flowing tempo made this an especially moving and revelatory performance.

The macabre scherzo with its bone-rattle xylophone (used nowhere else in Mahler's symphonies) jolts us to stark reality as the unrelenting march rhythm returns. The movement is marked “Wuchtig” or “heavy” and Stern took this marking to heart with an appropriately forceful tempo full of accented downbeats. As called upon, the woodwinds, especially the fine clarinet section, shrieked with merciless terror and the brass snarled menacingly. In the trio sections, ironically marked “Altväterisch” (literally “old father-like” or “old fashioned”), Stern let the menace slack just enough for contrast but made sure we knew these episodes of nostalgic glances to the past are the real tragedy of this work, the  brief  reminiscence of “what was and will never be again” that haunted the composer and in reality haunts all of us. The final measures of this most dark movement collapse after a perfectly integrated but climactic tam tam stroke into fitful short motives, with superb contributions from the bass clarinet and contra-bassoon. Stern and Timothy Jepson, principal timpani took care to make the final timpani beats not just an ambiguous ending but hinted at a beginning of a funeral march; which further justifies the placing of the scherzo third as they foretell the return of the hammering fate motive in the finale.

The finale leaves us with another question.... two or three hammer blows? But before that becomes relevant, Stern and company pulled out all the stops for a most incredible and dramatic performance of this movement, some of the most humanly emotional music ever penned. The opening ambiguous, harp laced chords literally soar into the commanding statement of the “Fate” theme, plunging headlong into this most indescribable music, both lyrical and tormented. Stern's trademark attention to detail left no stone unturned, the music soared, whispered, marched and ultimately collapsed into despair, The heavy brass was mostly well balanced, only occasionally they got out of hand, but never to the point of annoyance. The all important hammer blows of fate were well done, commanding but not so much as to totally seem out of place. The audience members near me probably wanted to slap me over my  subtle  “YES” with clenched fist pumping when I saw principal percussionist Christopher McLaurin reach for the hammer a third time. Mahler withdrew it, but it just adds that nth degree of finality to this most autobiographical movement. The final statement of the fate motive was shattering, the audience stunned to silence. Stern took his time with the final diminuendo and quiet pizzicato, creating a breathtaking ending where one could often find it anti-climactic.

“The only Sixth, despite the (Beethoven) Pastoral.”

Alban Berg wrote the above to his colleague and composer Anton Webern. I think those who heard these performances would agree.

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