Mahler: The Symphonies in Sequence – Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim & Boulez in New York [Symphony No.7/Barenboim]

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Symphony No.7

Thomas Hampson (baritone)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 13 May, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

The seventh concert in Staatskapelle Berlin’s “Mahler: The Symphonies in Sequence” series coupled Mahler’s first song-cycle juxtaposed with his mature Symphony No.7.

Thomas Hampson. ©Petra SpiolaThomas Hampson may not have as light or youthful-sounding a baritone voice as he had a decade ago — his middle register can have an almost ringing ‘heldenbariton’ quality and he seemed at times tentative in the songs’ higher range — but his portrayal of the protagonist was brash, vigorous and youthful, and he was able to hold his own with the orchestra in its handful of accompanying fortissimo passages. The hard-pressed tempos from Barenboim in ‘Wenn mein Schatz’ (jarringly contrasted with slow ones) and in ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ were simply too rushed. ‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld’ fared much better, with the shift from optimism to wistfulness conveyed beautifully. Staatskapelle Berlin brought beautiful and delicate playing to ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ from the quiet music of the winds to the soft, ominous timpani strokes. Hampson sang the last stanza with particular poignancy, and more than a hint of his ‘younger’ sound.

Daniel Barenboim. Photograph: Kevin RogersSymphony No.7 brought forth Staatskapelle Berlin’s best and most thrilling playing. The brass was particularly excellent, not merely playing this very demanding music with superb intonation and ensemble but with genuine panache. The winds summoned a wide gamut of timbres, particularly the pungent clarinet section and oboes that not only retain the traditional, deep ‘German’ sound but can also generate an impressive fortissimo.

Barenboim approached Symphony 7 more like Mahler’s ‘concerto for orchestra’ than the sometimes-designated ‘Song of the Night’. Once again, tempo shifts were a bit too abrupt, and the phrasing — particularly in the recurring main theme of the opening movement — tended to slice long, broad melodies into efficient chunks. The second movement, ‘Nachtmusik I’, opened evocatively with a horn call and chattering winds, and the march music sounded surprisingly spry and jaunty, but an air of mystery was lacking from the trio. The scherzo and ‘Nachtmusik II’ were both taken at a breathlessly fast clip, the former seeming more an over-caffeinated Bergian express-lane waltz (sonorities intended to be grotesque seemed camp), the latter bringing particularly beautiful playing with chamber-music intimacy. If there was a bit too much bombast and some over-the-top tempo-manipulation in the finale, it would be churlish to complain given the virtuosity of the playing.

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