Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mahler (or not)

There are some prior events I've been writing up for a while, but Saturday's Mahler concert was sufficiently odd to get first notice. It was the penultimate part of the Staatskapelle Berlin's complete Mahler symphony cycle at Carnegie Hall: in this case, the Adagio of the not-quite-completed 10th followed (after an intermission) by the symphony-cum-song-cycle "Das Lied von der Erde". The soloists for the latter were tenor Klaus Florian Vogt and mezzo Michelle de Young; the conductor was Daniel Barenboim, who has been splitting baton duties in the cycle with longtime Mahlerian Pierre Boulez.

Barenboim has been music director of the Berlin State Opera (whose orchestra this is) since 1992, and it is no surprise that he showed the band to better effect than Boulez. Mistakes here and there aside, my ears found their brass and wind tone solid but neither particularly songful nor virtuosic, while the strings are firm and appealing at the bottom and rather mixed on top: interestingly airy when so requested, using some of that deliberate not-quite-togetherness Furtwängler famously cultivated in his Berlin orchestra, but quite unable to manage the massed singing sound of Mahler's rapture.

For Boulez, the Staatskapelle was a game but ultimately limiting instrument, encouraging some regret that he hadn't been leading one of the more world-famous orchestras with which he regularly appears at Carnegie. But Barenboim's conducting of Mahler (as of other music) oddly fit his orchestra. As in the winter's Met Tristans, his characteristic method is a sort of musical pointillism, engaging each detail to its own interesting completeness, not quite concerned with overall proportionality or beauty of sound per se. If the orchestra never sounds immaculate or single-minded, Barenboim isn't interested in that anyway, and under his ever-shifting variety of phrase and attack its players very much do sound interesting.

The most notable feature of the performance, however -- besides the soloists, discussed below -- was that which emerged over time, which is to say Barenboim's overall way with Mahler. It was evident in the fragment of the 10th, but I did not quite believe it would be confirmed by "Das Lied" -- but it was.

Barenboim has, as has been noted, taken quite a while to come around to Mahler -- so much so that his large involvement in this cycle was a surprise. Was he a convert? Well, it seems, not exactly. Barenboim's Mahler is, to my ears, a radical (and surprisingly successful) attempt to assemble all the elements and gestures of the music absent the overweening presence of the thing so many have found questionable in the symphonies: Mahler himself, as subject. It's a rather greater trick than Christoph Pregardien's recent performance of Schumann absent the singing subjective "I" -- in Schumann songs a self always lurks, but he varies with his poets in form and mode, while Mahler is (or so one had thought) always unmistakably Mahler. And it's a different sort of thing altogether from the previously-existing "objective" readings of these symphonies -- conducting (like that of Boulez) perhaps more stern or cerebral in its fire, but all the more transmitting Mahler's essential features. Barenboim keeps Mahler's syntax but tells a Mahler-free story: full of new twists, familiar sonic landscapes, and occasional gorgeous moments, and empty of (well, reduced to an absence that was nevertheless what held the various twists together) the troublesome and ubiquitous figure some love and some loathe.

"Das Lied von der Erde" alternates solo tenor and mezzo songs in fairly straightforward setting until the last movement, which incorporates long and vital orchestral bits amidst the singing of the two connected poems. The soloists sing of various Chinese-based scenes, but never quite cease to be tenor and mezzo soloists with orchestra, suggesting the limit of Barenboim's potential success. Mahler was a legendary opera conductor who never wrote an opera: unlike Barenboim favorite Wagner, his genius was not one to dissolve into particular characters in a particular scene as completely as theater requires. And so Barenboim's Mahler-free Mahler must be something of a shell, if a rather fascinating one.

But perhaps the right pair of singers could have made a better case for it. Klaus Florian Vogt was probably the best part of the performance: astoundingly clear and audible in sound, word, and well-shaped phrase throughout, his singing -- the opposite of the strained and too-often-swamped heldenyelling one associates with these songs -- was (even for one present for his Lohengrin) first shocking, then delightful, then thrilling. Vogt's compelling clarity made some sense of Barenboim's approach, while the unearthly quality sat a bit uneasily with it; at any rate, the combination contrasted heavily with the other soloist -- Michelle deYoung -- making an odd whole. deYoung has a rich full-sized mezzo with power and focus at the top, but the bottom of her range -- tested often in her songs, particularly the finale -- gets muddy (with too-wide vibrato) and has less force. Her generally and appealingly warm but not hugely precise interpretive impulse didn't, unfortunately, fit Barenboim's mercurial turns at all; nor did it provide the personal center that Mahler's absence left unfilled.

I don't suppose Waltraud Meier still could sing this piece?


  1. I found Barenboim’s conducting of Das Lied Von Der Erde too crunchy and earthbound. He reminds me of another pointillist, crunchy conductor, Lorin Maazel, but at least when I hear Maazel conducting Mahler, I get a sense of the music’s emotional sweep and flow.

    But I was there mostly to hear Klaus Florian Vogt. I imagine that when angels get drunk, they sound like him.

  2. I agree with Christina re. Barenboim-Maazel in their exquisite attention to detail. I too find it harder to find the flow in some of Barenboim's performances during this cycle (most notably, his climax-every-other-minute renditions of the 1st and 5th). I found Boulez's performances thrilling - they let Mahler be Mahler. (The 4th and 6th were revelatory; the 8th was a near train-wreck a few moments in the 1st movement, but had a level of excitement and energy that leaped off the page.) I did, however, relish every moment of Das Lied von der Erde. I have never heard the tenor part sung better. I am spoiled, having heard Ewa Podles sing the final movement. I must admit that I also relish the Jessye Norman recording of Das Lied.

  3. Thank you for this enormously interesting post. I recently heard Mahler 9 with Barenboim in Vienna and I must admit that I don't consider the Staatskapelle Berlin anything less than a first class orchestra. Sometimes, however, Barenboim's cerebral approach creates an odd distance from the work. In 9 even he, however, couldn't combat the white-hot emotion of the writing and one would have been hard pushed to resist his and their reading of the final desolate movement. http://entartetemusik.blogspot.com/2009/05/mahler-liebstod.html


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.