Mahler: The Symphonies in Sequence – Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim & Boulez in New York [Symphony No.4/Boulez]

Mahler
Des Knaben Wunderhorn [selection: Rheinlegendchen; Das irdische Leben; Verlor’ne Müh; Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen; Wer hat das Liedlein erdacht?; Lob des hohen Verstands]
Symphony No.4

Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Pierre Boulez


Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 9 May, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Pierre BoulezThis Mahler cycle by Staatskapelle Berlin features all the composer’s symphonies (if only the Adagio of the Tenth) not only in sequence, but nearly consecutively, ten concerts in twelve days. It is a real tour de force for the orchestra, especially considering that the musicians also rehearse daily. Pierre Boulez conducted the second, third and fourth symphonies in succession, which would be a challenge even for a man half his age (Boulez is now 84). Amazingly he did not betray a hint of fatigue on his third night out, and the orchestra played its technically best performance yet.

The first movement of Symphony No.4 had a light, flowing quality, but Boulez’s brisk tempos rather ignored Mahler’s indication of “recht gemächlich” (very leisurely). Even the cellos’ second theme, marked “breit gesungen” (sung broadly) was barely slowed and thus robbed of much of its emotional impact. Conversely, the second movement (‘moving leisurely’) was fairly slow, perhaps even too slow to sustain forward momentum. Leader Wolf-Dieter Batzdorf is a confident enough violinist that he dared to play the scordatura “fiedel” in a truly demonic, crude way, using the open F sharp, and so emphatically that he even broke a string. In contrast, his solos on his regular violin were as beautiful as they had been the day before in Symphony No.3.

Dorothea Röschmann. Photgoraph: Jim RaketeThe orchestra’s string section again shone in the slow movement, especially in softer dynamics. It was a joy to hear different shades of softness, infused with colors ranging from warm to ethereal and, as in the finale of the Third, Boulez sustained the longest possible lines. Dorothea Röschmann had already sung in the Second Symphony, but her voice was not as appropriate here, in the child’s-view-of-Heaven finale. Röschmann’s singing lacked the innocence one expects, and her occasional operatic scoops were out of character. While her low notes were admirable for a soprano, she had trouble finding the right sound for the slow, pianissimo high phrases, which were either too thin or too loud.

Röschmann had opened the concert with six songs from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”, starting with a lovely ‘Rheinlegendchen’. This song, and the beautiful meslismas in ‘Wer hat das Liedlein erdacht’ were the high points of the set. In ‘Das irdische Leben’ one could have wished for a little more characterization of the three different protagonists, the mother, the child, and the narrator. Similarly in ‘Verlor’ne Müh’ she visually acted out the part of the seductress quite successfully, but vocally there was little distinction between her and the object of her desire. ‘Lob des hohen Verstands’ was playfully presented, hard as it may be for an attractive woman to bray like a donkey.

‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ calls for the most emphatic singing in this group, and Röschmann couldn’t quite deliver the goods. When pushed, her voice develops a tight vibrato, and throughout the evening one had the impression that she sings with a lot of pressure on her vocal cords. One can only hope that this will not get her into trouble down the line. Boulez, in his quiet and unobtrusive way, set the perfect stage for all the songs and Staatskapelle Berlin, drawing on ample experience in the opera house, accompanied sympathetically and most idiomatically.

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