Saturday, May 23, 2009

Mahler in Sequence: Barenboim Symphony # 9

Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin closed the Carnegie Hall Mahler in Sequence cycle with the evocative and moving 9th Symphony. This actually a quite brisk 9th, making it an exciting 9th, an often moving 9th, but a tad messy in a few spots. I was too fast really, as I wanted the glorious music to linger a bit. Still there was plenty to savor even if some of the details and subtle tempo relationships were blurry.

The first movement was the most obvious example, with little contrast between the sections, as I am used to in most performances and even in the live recording by Barenboim with the same forces. The tolling bells in the central section were represented by tuned metal plates (that also annoyed me in the 8th), and the two percussionists, one to strike and one hold them to damp the sound, danced distractingly across the back of the stage. Really, a good set of tubular bells would have done just as well and been more in tune.

The second movement, a distorted ländler, was perfectly... well...distorted is the word, hardly recognizable far its last appearance in Mahler's work. The connection with the past and the minuet has been broken, not to appear in the sketches of the 10th.

The "Rondo Burleske" benefited from Barenboim's breakneck tempo and had an appropriately rustic feel. The brass and winds sneered and snarled as they should, whipping the ensemble to a powerful conclusion.

Mahler died without ever having heard his Ninth Symphony performed, thus for years many critics and scholars interpreted the 9th's finale as his musical farewell. The completion and publication of the sketches of the 10th Symphony showed that Mahler was not quite yet ready to say his good byes. However, there is a feeling of resignation, a funereal quality that permeates every note of the finale. Barenboim again took the movement at a good clip, missing some of the feeling of heavy remorse and hymn like simplicity. The strings, however, provided some of their best work in this movement, milking the many chorale like passages for all they were worth with a deep sonorous sound frankly missing in the 10th the day before.

Overall this final performance has to be categorized as a plus, but I would have preferred a bit more relaxed performance. Slowing the tempi a bit and allowing the music to breathe and communicate would have made it an even more fitting finale to this daunting endeavor.

Barenboim stopped a minute between the Rondo Burleske and the Finale, totally unnecessary in my view, spoiling the contrast between the raucous conclusion of the Rondo and the hymn of the finale. But something had distracted him... a commotion at one of the side doors right down in orchestra front. In shuffled an old woman using a walker, its basket full of God knows what, slowly making her way to an empty seat. By now everyone had focused their attention to the scene as did Barenboim glaring intently at the late comer. As she got to the seat, she called out to the hushed audience, "my name is Marilyn Mahler". Barenboim gave her no time to elaborate as he spun around and launched into the finale. I hope someone at Carnegie Hall got their ass kicked hard for this totally unprofessional, uncalled for intrusion.

So what about the whole show?

For me, 4 Mahler performances in 3 days, for many all the symphonies and major song cycles in 12 days but now festival came to an end. Many felt the orchestra was tired, the many slips and snares of the performance chalked up to the grueling schedule. Others opined that Carnegie Hall was not the best venue for the big pieces, like the 2nd, 3rd and 8th and that Barenboim, Boulez and the Staatskapelle Berlin are not the top flight Mahler interpreters of the day. The prolonged and sincere ovation after the 9th was not so much for the performance, although overall it was fine, but for the herculean effort of the orchestra, the conductors and the staff of Carnegie Hall (minus the goon balls who let "Marilyn Mahler" in) that persevered and gave us these incredible works in sequence. Something not likely to happen again soon. The phrase once in a lifetime certainly applies here.

My sincere thanks to the wonderful Benefactor John who so generously gave me the opportunity to attend a part of this wonderful experience, Beth for allowing me the use of her fabulous 6th Ave and Central Park South apartment for the weekend, Midwest Airlines for getting me back and forth to NYC from KC, Maestro Damon for accompanying me, Miss Alice B (who proudly showed me her parents' name on the plaque honoring the major donors to the renovation of Carnegie Hall, and of course to Paul for his enthusiasm for Mahler and his always reliable entertainment.

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