Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone)
Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette
Reviewed: 6 May, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
This concert inaugurated Carnegie Hall’s ambitious and highly anticipated “Mahler: The Symphonies in Sequence” series – ten concerts with Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez. This is the first time in over three decades that such a Mahler series has been presented in New York City; the last, in 1976, was presented by the New York Philharmonic conducted alternately by James Levine, Erich Leinsdorf and Boulez and Erich Leinsdorf.
Mahler’s Symphony No.1 and “Kindertotenlieder” could not be more different in theme and mood – the former a Wagnerian symphony evoking nature, rustic life, heroism and even a little street music, the latter a cycle that straddles introspective and extrovert emotions in the face of agonizing loss.
Barenboim went out of his way to exaggerate dynamics, articulation and tempo shifts in “Kindertotenlieder” (Songs on the death of children), and too often ran the risk of overwhelming Thomas Quasthoff. Throughout the song-cycle, there was unusually ragged ensemble from the violins and horns, Barenboim trying to turn the work into Schoenberg’s “Erwartung”, particularly because of the exaggerated, sudden crescendos and diminuendos Barenboim urged in the strings, and brusque and grotesque phrasing in the winds that subverted the music’s intended mood. Things fared far better later, the eerie irony of ‘Wenn der Mütterlein’ invoked by some very fine wind playing, and the second half of ‘In diesem Wetter…’ sounded as if it could have been lifted from the Andante moderato of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Overall, the performance would have been insufferable were it not for Quasthoff’s singing, at once impassioned and noble, reflecting the grief, stoicism and eventual acceptance in Rückert’s texts.
Admittedly, “Kindertotenlieder” is Mahler’s toughest nut to crack, and one might write it off as a misfire from the podium. So there were still high hopes for the First Symphony, hopes that were dashed in the work’s third bar, when the winds entered at a healthy mezzo forte (memo to Barenboim: that’s supposed to be pp, as in pianissimo). With the portentous atmosphere and tone-painting of the introduction successfully demolished, Barenboim proceeded to ignore dynamic and tempo markings, subverting and cheapening the first movement, which resembled a second-string Liszt tone poem as opposed to young Mahler. The second scherzo similarly misfired – tempo changes were as exaggerated as in the first movement, and the variety of articulations clearly indicated by Mahler in both the melodic material and (particularly) accompaniment were practically ignored. The trio fared better, particularly the playing from the lower strings.
The third movement’s main theme was delivered a bit too poker-faced, but the intrusions of the street-music were played with gusto and humor – and the slow middle section, lifted from the composer’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen”, took on a nostalgic, dreamlike quality, even if it was played a bit faster than customary and the poco ritenuto at the end wasn’t so poco. The finale was the largest disappointment – it was a complete mess with scrappy ensemble, intonation problems, muddy balances, and Barenboim’s hard-pressed tempos and extreme shifts in speed augmenting the chaos.
I can recall witnessing only one performance of Mahler’s Symphony No.1 that was equally disappointing: Zubin Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic in Hartford in the late-1970s. In that case, I was left with the impression of an orchestra that just wasn’t engaged. Staatskapelle Berlin looked to be giving its best shot, but simply not delivering the goods. Certainly Barenboim, with his wayward and even subversive approach to these two works, carries a good measure of the blame. Perhaps Staatskapelle Berlin was just having an off-night three days into a different time zone. But the present performances do not bode well.