Mahler: The Symphonies in Sequence – Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim & Boulez in New York [Symphony No.5/Barenboim]

Symphony No.5

Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 10 May, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

The fifth program in Carnegie Hall’s “Mahler: The Symphonies in Sequence” series with Staatskapelle Berlin was the second conducted by Daniel Barenboim, and followed the same pattern as the first concert: a song-cycle from the composer’s maturity, sung by Thomas Quasthoff, followed by a symphony.

Thomas QuasthoffThe concert began with Mahler’s settings of five poems by Friedrich Rückert on subjects central to the romantic movement: love, nature, night, suffering, and the inner heart of the artist. Quasthoff effectively conveyed the contrasting, ardent emotions and imagery of each song, and was especially successful in the two that center on artistic temperament and creativity, bringing both terseness and humor to ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’ and a surprising sense of stillness and peace to ‘Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen’. There was unexpected boldness and ultimate optimism to ‘Um Mitternacht’, which illuminated the work in a completely different starlight.

The orchestral accompaniment was far more secure and polished than that of first concert, though Barenboim’s penchant for overly-refined articulation and strong focus on instrumental and ensemble colors tended to undermine the long lines and phrasing – and the final tutti verse of ‘Um Mitternacht’ nearly overwhelmed Quasthoff. The notable exception was ‘Ich bin der welt…’ – Barenboim took a (perhaps too) broad tempo, but his conducting seemed more restrained, and the resulting long, blooming phrases and melodies made for some of the most satisfying listening of the evening. Quasthoff’s voice does not sound quite as warm and round as it has in previous New York appearances – but his strong characterization leaves him with few rivals in this repertoire.

Daniel Barenboim. Photograph: Kevin RogersSymphony No.5 was a mixed bag, but the quality of playing was again far superior to that of the first concert. Barenboim hammered the rhythms of the fanfare motif in the funereal first movement but underplayed the martial rhythms that underpin the main theme. This micro-managed phrasing and dynamics subverted the long melodic lines, and a scattering of brass clinkers didn’t help matters, but the ‘trio’ section that reappears in the second movement was played with poignant beauty. The second movement itself suffered from similar problems of continuity – and some overly exaggerated tempo changes – but in the second theme, Barenboim elicited some beautiful playing from the low strings and timbres from the staccato upper winds that were just pungent enough to stand out and propel the music forward.

The third movement’s hybrid scherzo-sonata form is very difficult to carry off, and while portions of it here came across as either too manic and graceless (particularly the first subject) or episodic (the ‘false coda’ brass chorale and transitional material that follows), the more thinly-scored sections, which were not as hard-pressed by Barenboim, were played with great charm.

The fourth movement – the famous (“Death in Venice”) Adagietto – timed in at 8’25”, yet did not seem rushed at all – it was the most satisfying music-making of the concert. Barenboim again seemed to loosen the reins and free the strings to work their magic, including some beautiful and unexpected portamento – and the very tricky sixteenth-note figures at the end of each iteration of the main theme, which all too often get buried or sound muddy, came through with clarity and grace.

Unfortunately, the finale brought with it the return of Barenboim’s sliced-and-diced, overly refined, fussed-over approach that focused more on color than on form and threw in a few odd balances to boot – though it should be said, discounting some strident sound from the brass, the solid ensemble and spirited playing were generally excellent, with the lower strings a particular standout.

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