The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Metzmacher/DSO Berlin, Von Otter - a thoroughly enlightened Mahler Third

When Ingo Metzmacher conducted the Mahler Second Symphony earlier this year – paired without interruption with the short purely choral Lux Aeterna of Ligeti preceding it, he sought and mostly attained a modernist take on Mahler’s innovations of its structure, related issues, especially for its finale, with its elements of sonata form and moreover prefigurations of ‘perpetual variation.'

The finale to the Second has been said to be a series of introductions (though again including sonata form elements) with statement of ‘Auferstehung’, when it finally arrives in E-Flat Major being arrival of the first theme of the true Exposition. The outworking of it then in effect becomes the Veni, Creator Spiritus (Part 1) of the Eighth Symphony – also in E-Flat Major. He mostly convincingly took the finale of Symphony No. 2 just a step further, however, than how described above (as most acutely heard on Klemperer's classic EMI recording, recorded performances) in how he may perceive that this music suggests Mahler possibly having seen farther than, beyond the modernism to rigorously develop soon thereafter. In opening out such romantic perspective, one can surmise Mahler having envisioned futuristic elements through prism of the romantic past as well.

Metzmacher just partly indicated inculcating romantic elements into his interpretation as might be rethought later on, to include the Ligeti up to several seconds or so right before starting the first movement of the Second Symphony. Ligeti aside, part of doing so would too be in keeping with the Wunderhorn roots of so much of its melodic material in and inspiration behind both it and together the Third and Fourth to follow.

We then come to the Symphony No. 3, nearly a year after what proved very close to definitive for the Second and that I found even more satisfactory than the recording Gielen made in southwest Germany (SWR) several years ago. Probably the most controversial part of Metzmacher’s interpretation of Symphony No. 3 was the first movement, in his emphasis on purely musical aspects of its even dramatic narrative and form - or mix of form and sprawl. Certainly one suffers slightly from fatigue, coming across the same heavily anticipated downbeats, hollow bombast that gets applied very often to much of the first movement of the Third. Metzmacher, in finding so much poetry in spaces, transitions between the big moments of this movement, is certainly more attuned to the progressive, forward looking aspects of this music than are others.

However not nearly all of how Metzmacher arrives at interpretative decisions comes from with whom he studied, neither should it be expected, even for things to coincide. The more single-minded I find in this instance, having listened to each on the first movement back to back is still Michael Gielen. Gielen has recorded one of the slowest accounts of the first movement; his doing so has helped deny ahead of time any closeness of himself and Metzmacher. Metzmacher opted instead for a moderately broad pace, impetus being to avoid romanticizing this music excessively and playing it all to goal of so much expected clichés and bombast – tendencies Gielen avoids as well.

Part One opened, understated, in forthright manner - space opened up for respondent brass chorales – and good current running through icy string section tremolo getting added into the mix as well. Quick dovetailing through wide runs at end of first episode of depicting the inchoate aspects of winter, sounded only a little glib, as did not oddly enough resumption of the opening section. ‘Schwer’ (Heavy) marked got understated – but in context of otherwise very accurate rhythm and intonation – after very febrile first intimations of spring – beautifully anticipated from low brass and timpani.

Metzmacher waited until entry of the march for spring to find clear definition in thus its full arrival in full, even with previous to it a Mendelssohnian lightness for triplets from lower strings; once into the march, he understated what is usually deemed necessary some really firm accentuation. With return of the cold blast of brass and acutely varied tremoli from the strings, focus was put back in full; and one’s attention got riveted by that and then with timpani rolls cutting in on lines of arioso from trombone - eloquently voiced here. Such carried over effortlessly into beautiful duet between Wei Lu (concertmaster) and principal horn, following a gently, specifically marked, s evocative alternating inhalation and exhalation of the breath of spring.

Metzmacher through very well animated ‘Rabble’ and then perhaps lighter manner with Storm than usual, continued to show seeing somehow past the most climactic, even bombastic pages in the first movement to bigger picture that lay ahead. Some might continue to find, with the Lisztian demonic quality one gets for instance from 1980’s Solti/Chicago, the whole thing somewhat understated in regards to such possible element in Mahler’s scoring of both what is tone poem and thirty-three minute long first movement in sonata form. The sobriety of how trombone arioso approaching the coda (as much late arriving B group of the recapitulation) to this that then started with lively bounce, lift, even lightness to it, sufficiently contrasted with the storm episode that had preceded it. One might have asked for more defined sweeping allargandi right before end of the first movement and a little more punch to closing accents. Without having experienced anything maybe quite definitive with the first movement, much was still very clearly enjoyable - and free of unwanted cliché. First movement here served its purpose very well as façade for what followed it.

As many times the second movement has gone well, this one came very close to perfection, starting Part Two, even with a little more dark color from oboe and strings early on - with its anticipated fine halting step through it – than usual. First brief trio section was all crisp, airy, and incisive, with Metzmacher relaxing things down into sober reprise of consequent of opening phrases in violas through increasingly drowsy replies from Wei Lu, high solo clarinet, and descending flute triplets. Light spiccati marked trio section reprise through incredible, never self-conscious display of light virtuosity from varied sections of DSO Berlin. Purposefully weary-toned flutes through later reprise of A section of the ‘minuet’ on soft down of meadow under gentle breeze, continued rapt utter charm, naivete, giving away no hint of sophistication in achieving such. Luminous, ardent closing phrases helped conclude very poetic playing of this intermezzo.

The third movement was hardly less good than the second, with woodland naivete not diminished – from over grassy meadows of right before. Woodwinds, with complete naïve and rustic charm, phrased Ablosung in Sommer (tune to opening of the third movement) exactly as it would be sung, leading one to suspect Metzmacher going over song text with his principals during rehearsal, to make sure how well they must know it to play such passages so well. Metzmacher put all through never a heavily sluggish gait, while maintaining a steady, almost measured, but never rushed pace through it all.

Contrasting dark muted accents got drawn out of trumpets and violins with unforced ease. Played a little more forte than fortissimo, the trio parody of Beethoven 5 got played here as just that – parody, lightly jaunty, with trills in solo flute, then violins effortlessly spinning off. Metzmacher marked eschewal of vibrato in the violins and then indicated kletzmar bump to double bass figuration to enhance further the rusticity of his accents in reprise of the scherzo - past what is too commonly an overstated downward brass run end to often excessively disjunct stretto. He then calibrated dry colors with reverb through series of brief episodes to very magical effect, making ready post horn anticipating shadows of twilight.
Back placement of the dark, highly expressive, but never sentimentalized post horn solo was evocatively calibrated with all else, including with episodes interrupting this section with for instance more kletzmar accents from bassoon unapologetic, unfettered. The fugato that Mahler makes recapitulate trio portion of the scherzo, only almost rushed toward the end, had very near ideal combination of excellent lightness and strong accenting. Wei Lu was heard, sticking out only slightly to lead violins down long tremolo accented chromatic lines down into post horn solo reprise. Even though the coda to follow emerged slightly rushed, all space was allowed brief ‘call from horn in E-flat Minor to herald both an exuberant close to this – and all mystery to follow.

All that might have distracted from excellent focus for the two vocal movements here were a scratchy first awkward portamento or two from principal oboe in the former and tinny, metallic bells in the latter. Anne Sofie Von Otter found, with still youthful, even ‘Wunderhorn’ tone the right balance between that and the mystery of the text, the latter which she somewhat missed with the Vienna Philharmonic and Boulez on DGG. Here, with deep longing, without beginning to go ‘tragedy queen’ on us, she ideally expressed Nietzche’s lines for what they evoke of night, of Man’s groping for reason therein, - and then calmly, with both supple resolution and compassion, the penitential lines of the fifth movement. One has perhaps to go back to Maureen Forrester to hear this music sung equally well. Metzmacher accompanied, through beautiful solos and eventually improved portamenti from his principal oboe, evocatively. He also freely understated so frequently found raucous element to mix of childrens’ and women’s choruses in what follows, without denying any of their character.

All one could call Metzmacher on during the Adagio was perhaps slightly stiff accenting of the one or two dramatic climaxes occurring late within – perhaps for lack of having been able to find firm accenting for similar places in the first movement. He more than made up for it for what competes very clearly for one of the most simply hymnal, transfigured accounts of this music available to us yet. All hint of smarminess, pop song or Liberace lyrics to, colloquially speaking, consequent of this hymn, was not within reach here. The emphasis was on a transfigured kind of light, without going either the other direction too far (i.e., Adagio of 1982 Karajan Mahler Ninth) and making Parsifal out of this. He then in effect indicated here that he hears an opening out within these long-breathed lines into the great extension of tonality that was going to follow, but also the very human element as well, as to the deep longing this music beautifully expresses. Harrowingly poignant principal flute solo right before the final opening in solo trumpet for buildup to final statements of the hymn was steeply arched. For all that had preceded it, it proceeded forth very naturally.

All merged finally into single unbroken line to luminous, slowly intoned chords in brass over measured timpani. A higher level of music-making evident so many times during the last five movements of this Mahler Third - certainly as anticipated too during its first part (first movement) - seems hardly possible. One could also think back to such acute seeing to the other side in t Adagio of the Mahler Tenth, both tonally and transfiguratively with which Metzmacher infused it and closed last season, to effect, it would seem that the Deryck Cooke ‘completion’ of the Tenth should at last seem superfluous.

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