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.

Monday, April 19, 2010

BBC - Halle Orchestra: Mahler Second in fine, driven account by Markus Stenz - 10.02.10

The Mahler Second Symphony, closing with the Klopstock ode, Auferstehung (‘Resurrection’), to which Mahler added a few verses of his own, is likely - before embarking on the Sixth, especially for its great finale, the most progressive and challenging Mahler wrote, It also aspires for lofty aesthetic heights and elicits the most striving, dramatically and musically, to make them as anything he ever wrote.

What often gets missed is what elucidates the most naked progressivism possible for those who can see or hear it. The Second lays out its structure in such a way to challenge all odds. It also most frequently gets partly overlooked because of so much overlay of theatricality for what Mahler is surmised to graphically depict in its finale. Numerous interpreters of the Second, including even some famous names, appear not foolhardy enough to avoid temptation of leaving things just at that, most notably Leonard Bernstein, at least on both of his first two recordings, for CBS, hardly less the one he recorded in London than the previous.

Mahler, for one, never subtitled the symphony ‘Auferstehung.’ On the other hand, he had not developed the contrapuntal mastery that later one hears hinted at in the Fourth, and is still being developed past what is so well mostly academically achieved with the Fifth. It had become fully integrated into his compositional processes when he got around to the Sixth. Forget the Sixth’s deceptively starting out along conservative lines formally; the sprawling ‘sonata quasi una fantasia’ finale does not take any hostages.

Among Mahler interpreters today, someone with experience in some of the most progressive of twentieth century music – Henze, Stockhuausen, Rihm – should be most adept to conquer the Mahler Second Symphony. Markus Stenz’s recording of this with the Melbourne SO has received accolades in some quarters as its greatest recording nobody has ever heard. It has never in any format been available over here.

One of probably only a handful of disappointing movements in the very fine Gielen Mahler cycle (Hannsler) is probably the finale to the Second, for perhaps mildly excessively the academic approach - not quite catching quite this music’s full scope. One often settles from the podium of leaving interpretation just to depict events the music supposedly describes, even graphically so, and letting with (mostly) clear beat everything else take care of itself. Many people have left concert halls the world over much satisfied with performances that end up so, and yet there has to be a feeling of something too superficially achieved, such as for instance on at least Bernstein's first two recordings. Problem with making theatricality out of the finale, such as also did Solti is that Mahler introduces a tension within having an existentialist grasp of what was before him. He expresses such by a certain internal fragmentation in how he builds structure to most emphatically the finale to the Second; in doing so he broke new paths – more so than in the Third Symphony to follow. Johannes Brahms, upon only having heard the first three movements of the Second, correctly indicated Mahler ‘composer of the future,’ with so many around proclaiming it Richard Strauss.

Markus Stenz is, along with Nott and Metzmacher, a conductor to watch very closely today, including in his progress at conducting Mahler, after very striking impression he made at the Proms with the Gurzenich Koln on the Mahler Fifth in 2008. I enjoyed very much listening to his new disc of it with them this past week. He prudently understated here with the Second that he had at all in mind a more expansive Romantic approach or really, latent, in fact somewhat of a hybrid with such for just about all of this up until its finale. With measure of intellect Stenz has, this proved curious.

The revised ‘Totenfeier’, first movement of the Second, opened with stark realism and forthright rhythm and structural sense, holding forth great promise for what might follow. Even tremoli in the strings, occasionally heard as being still a little thin with the Halle, helped sustain tension, pulsation, and line very effectively here. Nodal points, numerous in the first movement, all received very astute placement, making full dramatic effect out of each without having to bloat Mahler’s textures or put on any grand display Halle’s resources. An at once gritty, old-world quality in sound especially on brass sonorities assisted toward their finding all internal dissonances thus so very well, Stenz achieved more with in effect less. Stenz also attended to diffusing space for textures to open out to full extent for especially lyrical pages – second theme suffused with transfigural light each time - each time individually in context of both what was to come before and follow.

Contributions from Halle brass varied from cutting incisiveness to muted, deep accents from lower reaches - very warm French horns in-between. At a few points, Stenz excitingly, even perhaps excitably made something a bit fractious, through brilliant agitato string writing, but with all clear goal in mind very well attained, keeping paramount the highest priority of dramatic clarity and firm structural sense. He drew out of this music its deep funereal colors and contrasting sublime light that still shines through, even at times slightly during some of the darkest passages of the first movement. Muffled accents on timpani down low right before momentary E-Flat Minor reprise of start to the first movement, following perfect Wunderhorn mirth through light procession in the woodwinds was moment rapt, rife with musical and dramatic tension, succinctly achieved. Pointing of the ‘Weh’ motif in the first two movements, in always being placed so beautifully and poignantly, was always spot-on - also to anchor disparate contrasting strands of development especially in the first movement.

Placing violins very far back for long last arch to the musical line in the first movement during the coda showed a penchant also for some risk-taking with this music. Stenz pulled such off with solid vigor. One welcomes Stenz perhaps taking on a little more of an urgent pace with this music, for still more acute sense of what this music is about without making any diminution of it - doing so possibly risk in and of itself. For what he had before him here, he chose tempo for this most sensibly, toward getting everything he asked for here quite definitively so.

Slightly heavy accent underneath combined with gentle lilt above, and simplicity in picking up the music’s rustic accents in-between definitively characterized the Andante moderato– within context of always comfortably forward moving pace. Stenz always closely observed proportions between contrasting Maggiore and Minore sections with very flexible, blossoming gemutlich, melos infused shaping of violin section descant and cello section obbligato lines for the former, yilelding nothing to excess or bathos. For first trio, Stenz prudently placed entering high violin triplets behind repeat eighth-note E-flats on solo horn, toward making both arch and fully satisfying profile of the main theme for both Minore sections. Contrasting with such astute formal sense was the gentle air of nostalgia he had waft through so many lyrical accents this music picks up - including in making long transition out of especially second trio (‘Minore’) into closing A section.

The third movement, while still being good, revealed at several critical junctures that Stenz could not prove quite entirely foolhardy in getting past a few unscathed. He made very prickly the pointing of the Wunderhorn theme – ‘St. Anthony preaches to the fishes’ – such moment of clipping best to overlook because Stenz effectively made it enhance characterizing this music so well. He wisely understated the often thwack upbeat to open this scherzo, to make complete sense of the rocking lilt serving violin line obbligato that at first plays here simply as introduction to the theme. Clarinet arpeggio in odd intervals could have used both a little more pointing and a little stronger underpinning, but capture of lilt into the first simple trio section was most engaging. Strong digging in on cellos and basses for starting the second trio section was distinctive at first; the second time it occurred it did so disproportionately with Stenz having undercut, clipped endings to ‘paradise gone bad’ middle section he had so beautifully introduced in a translucent E Major with fully voiced trio of trumpets. Anticipatory frolic, pomp to it was excellent.

What space Stenz can allow such moments, that here tend to end with too rapid descending run back into main theme - what pointed rubato, dissonance expanding allargando he can give these will provide solution to common error here. Stenz ultimately made full relish of the very open peasant frolic of this and of this music’s contrasting macabre elements and capture of Elysium as well.

‘Urlicht’, sung lyrically with intimate feeling by mezzo Katerina Karneus, but with Stenz reining in his forces a bit far back behind the vocal line, came across most effectively. Karneus lightly pointed out the angst, ardor, Wunderhorn naivete, and sense of what to grope for as profound through the highly expressive text with fine evenness of line. Orchestral principals characterized their solos with abundant sensitivity and profile, fully supportive of Ms. Karneus.

The monumental finale to this symphony, while not receiving a bad rendition, proved a bit of a letdown after expectations Stenz had raised already. Ferocity and exultation through respectively the most agitated and affirmative passages of the finale were not undercut, except for some of what lies beneath them and between so many multifaceted episodes upon which the finale to the Mahler Second is built. This is true within reckoning this music in the best possible way as designed from modus operandi or impetus that puts, as broadly interpreted, orthodox Roman Catholic faith to doubt – as much as quite differently does the Universalist text of both Klopstock and Mahler. One can even posit that there is within the finale of the Second Symphony, without the cumulative contrapuntal mastery that informs so much of the Sixth what ultimately made it then a very real possibility – not near just so much indicated by change at third from major to minor mode - originating from the ‘Weh’ in ‘Klagende Lied.’ Aspects of the design of the Second are deceptively simple. Mahler was not yet the full craftsman he was to become less than ten years later.

After curiously understated opening to the finale, Stenz held on very well through all the mystery to follow, finding very fine placement of the differing, contrasting voices from afar. Once into louder tutti sections, leading into suggestion of a development section for this finale - while on purpose ultimately being unsatisfactory as such - Stenz lost somewhat the focus he had maintained so well before. One is so used to opening segue into this expanding out, even almost ad infinitum at times, so much that one has to be really thinking ahead of what consequences might be of doing so even halfway. The broad brush digging in by strings for trumpet led marcia (marked Kraftig) is another. Stenz proved himself undaunted in handling complex textures through all the first extended loud tutti, making them all acutely clear, even including what is often inaudible; oxymoron for Stenz, broad sense of structure thereof – fragmentation built therein there to so emphasize that this is from which the most violent struggle arises – replaced such specific indication of what is quintessential here. Only by measuring Stenz’s efforts by the highest possible standards, did things go awry. Acutely, such occurred a minute after ‘false recapitulatory start in F Minor (approached from subdominant - B-Flat Minor), with closing very long descent thereof on diminished chord having proven flaccid here.

Past a slightly enervated, unstable, but still well characterized sequence of episodes - thanks again to consistently fine work from numerous Halle principals - starting with 'agitato' introduced on ‘Weh’ by doleful trombone, the Halle Choir entered well. Slightly gummy attack apart at first, Halle Choir’s keen attention to excellent balances and to expressive meaning of their text restored confidence for all involved. For being placed slightly forward, Susan Gritton had discerning ear to place tone slightly back to achieve right degree of mystery to her opening solos; she then joined Katerina Karneus for duet of freely open expressive ardor, helping bulld toward exultant conclusion to overall a fine account of the Second Symphony.

Stenz, for most concluding episodes, relocated his very fine grasp of formal objectivity that had, in conducting this had intermittently evaded him earlier. One should look forward to encountering him doing a work again soon which he has given much care and attention - and then of course with more in place than even now.

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At September 13, 2010 at 11:58 AM , Blogger augustineaura said...

You can write fully integrated, came to the same .One often on stage to represent the correct interpretation of the events described, the same music, but its look and feel and production This is saying to take care of itself all the rest.

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