Emanuel Ax plays Bach & Schoenberg … Matthias Pintscher conducts Schoenberg’s version of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde

The Well-tempered Clavier – Book I: Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor, BWV853
Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op.19
Mahler, arr. Schoenberg / Rainer Riehn
Das Lied von der Erde

Emanuel Ax (piano)

Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano) & Russell Thomas (tenor)

Musicians of the New York Philharmonic [Sheryl Staples & Michelle Kim (violins), Rebecca Young (viola), Maria Kitsopoulos (cello), David J. Grossman (bass), Robert Langevin (flute), Alexandra Sopp (piccolo), Liang Wang (oboe & English horn), Pascual Martinez Forteza (clarinet & bass clarinet), Judith LeClair (bassoon), Philip Myers (horn), Daniel Druckman & Kyle Zerna (percussion), Eric Huebner (harmonium & celesta), with Emanuel Ax (piano)]
Matthias Pintscher

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 4 November, 2012
Venue: Rose Theater, Lincoln Center, New York City

This concert, entitled “Song of the Earth” and part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, was presumably intended to focus upon Mahler’s symphony – performed by members of the New York Philharmonic in Schoenberg’s chamber reduction that was completed by Rainer Riehn in 1983.

Emanuel Ax. ©Sony Music EntertainmentIt was preceded by two piano compositions, a J. S. Bach Prelude and Fugue and Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces. Emanuel Ax acquitted himself admirably. He gave a straightforward, precise and delicate reading of the Prelude and Fugue, eschewing dramatic character for a lyrical approach that was almost Chopinesque. Going straight into the Schoenberg, he seemed to read the Pieces in much the same way, as if making an effort to connect these apparently (but not necessarily) unconnected works. If the march of No.3 seemed slightly tender-footed and the pointillism of No.2 smoothed over, it was in keeping with Ax’s overall approach. Only the florid opening of No.5, with its breathless romantic phrases, alternating chords and quasi-cadences, was more appropriately rash and effusive. The final Piece seems worlds apart from the others, yet it recalls figures from the first as if from a distance. Ax imbued it with an impressionistic quality that suits its veiled imagery.

Matthias PintscherSchoenberg began a chamber version of Das Lied von der Erde shortly after Mahler’s death. His purpose was purely practical, given the limited resources of the The Society for Private Musical Performances formed to promulgate contemporary music. Schoenberg also thought that a leaner orchestration, focused on clarity and transparency, would help audiences get more deeply into the work. It has received attention in the concert-hall and in the recording studio. But rarely has it accomplished anything more than revealing the inner workings of the piece – if at the price of diminishing its power and the profundity of its message.

Russell Thomas has a strong, if not completely secure voice with a vibrant high-range. His ability to convey both the cynicism of the opening ‘Drinking Song’ and the flippant nihilism of ‘The Drunkard in Spring’ were impressive. Tamara Mumford’s fine voice is somewhat thin at the bottom and slightly pale in mid-range, and she was reserved in ‘Loneliness in Autumn’, distancing from the profound sense of world-weariness it conveys. But she gave a characterful performance of ‘On Beauty’, racing through the description of the lads’ horses trampling upon the flowers only to end with a delightfully suggestive expression when describing the reaction of the maiden’s “parting glance” as they gallop away. Mumford’s vocal timbre was fitting for the final movement, ‘The Farewell’, as she communicated its moving sentiments, but the Ensemble seemed divorced from the mood of the music and rarely conveyed a sense of mystery or emotive depth.

Pintscher led a brisk and mostly understated performance that lacked dramatic flair, all too often simply letting the players sweep through their parts with little nuance or feeling. There was some expressive contributions by Robert Langevin, Liang Wang (who had pitch problems, however), Judith LeClair, Philip Myers (who sometimes overplayed his hand), and Pascal Martinez Forteza, but occasional wrong notes (including from Ax) and lack of consistent precision and idiomatic coloration were noticeable detractions. Schoenberg’s reduced instrumentation clearly does not do this work full justice – the piano, for example, cannot replicate the trumpet’s military tattoos – but given this impressive array of musicians, a performance with greater attention to structural considerations, phrasing and intensity might have been exceptional.

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