New York Philharmonic/Gilbert Karita Mattila [Beethoven, Sibelius & Nielsen’s The Four Temperaments]

Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Ah! Perfido, Op.65
Autumn Evening, Op.38/1; Arioso, Op.3; Spring is Flying, Op.13/4
Symphony No.2, Op.16 (The Four Temperaments)

Karita Mattila (soprano)

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 27 January, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Chris LeeBeethoven’s Eighth is the lightest and most humorous of his symphonies, full of fun. But little wit came through in Alan Gilbert’s strangely overpowering reading. He set an energetic tempo for the opening movement but the first theme was over-bold, even brash, and over-emphasized to the point of being brutal. Articulation had an incisive edge and sforzandos were played with excessive strength, such unremitting agitation creating disproportionate tension that mitigated the sheer joy of this exhilarating music. With antiphonal violins, using only three cellos weakened the support of lower strings. Despite thunderous climaxes that over-shot the mark, the pizzicatos that close the movement were hardly audible. Even the trippingly light fare of the succeeding Allegretto scherzando was caught up in the pressure to keep moving. Had the shuddering B flats that Beethoven inserted at phrase-endings been properly emphasized (they are all marked fortissimo), the humor intended by them might have emerged. Youthful energy and much stress were imposed upon the Minuet as well. The horn-duet that opens the Trio was played beautifully and, at the end of it, an interesting revelation was the highlighting of the cello arpeggiation.

Karita Mattila. Photograph: Lauri Eriksson“Ah! Perfido” is a milestone work for dramatic soprano and orchestra. Though in classical form, its declamatory power anticipates Verdi while harkening back to Mozart. It was premiered in Vienna during an extended concert in December 1808 that included the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and Fourth Piano Concerto. Beethoven had a difficult time with the musicians during rehearsals including the soprano who quarreled with him and refused to appear. Her young and inexperienced replacement was so nervous that she ruined the work. The opening declamation is the outburst of a woman scorned. After angrily accusing her traitorous lover of cruelly abandoning her, she calms down and pleads that he does not desert her, vacillating between her desire for revenge and her piteous cries of a forsaken woman. Karita Mattila, appearing in a flaming-red dress, filled the hall with her powerful voice that gave every measure of operatic drama to the expressionistic fury of the text. Her cries for mercy seemed to come from a very private place within her, and her tempestuous raging was full of fire.

Mattila has a flair for the dramatic that she conveys through her impressively stentorian voice, which glories in immense and mostly-secure top notes and a mid-range that projects a Nordic coolness perfectly suited to these three settings of her countryman Jean Sibelius. Although not as widely known as they should be, Sibelius’s songs are far-ranging and numerous (some one-hundred), darkly evocative, bold and deeply personal, and often composed to texts by Finnish poets (such as Johan Runeberg, Karl August Tavaststjerna, Viktor Rydberg and Zacharie Topelius) that were written in Swedish. “Autumn Evening”, with its austere accompaniment doesn’t quite measure up to the gloomy images of nature projected by the singer. Only at the very end does a human-being appear out of the autumnal storm. Mattila tempered her capacity and emphasized the gray, dusky timbre of her middle range to convey “gloomy fortunes past” and “voices dismally trembling in pain”. “Arioso” sets a poem by Runeberg (1804-1877), Finland’s national poet. In this evocation of a winter morning, the poet compares a rose made pale by its frozen surroundings to the tragic fate of a young woman. Almost like a tender lullaby, Mattila graced this soulful song with simple, unaffected gentleness. “Spring Is Flying” was a delightful conclusion. Unabashedly romantic in style, the text recalls the several dialogue-songs between boy and girl from Mahler’s “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”. The girl grieves over the quick passing of Spring, while the boy urges her to capture the moment and treasure its many beauties. Opening in a wistful mood, the song concludes as the boy teases the girl for a kiss. Mattila conveyed both the girl’s tender melancholy and the boy’s enthusiastic proposal.

Excessive force and driving energy once again informed Gilbert’s account of Nielsen’s Second Symphony. During a visit to a village pub in Zealand, Nielsen came across a series of paintings representing the four temperaments: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholy, and sanguine. According to ancient authorities, our personality consists of all four. Nielsen was extremely interested in the human spirit and its various characteristics. A profound thinker as well as a humanist, Nielsen sought to describe each temperament in the four movements of his Second Symphony.

Gilbert’s reading of the first one was full-blooded, its broad sweep, heavy-laden with brass, adding a touch of maniacal violence to the choleric temperament. But he slowed down for the second theme and, during the development, forced unnecessary hesitations upon isolated upbeat-downbeat strokes. Nielsen commented that “the second movement is a complete contrast to the first … I visualized a young fellow … everything idyllic and heavenly in nature was to be found in this young lad … the mood of the music is as far removed as possible from energy and emotionalism.” Yet here the opening theme seemed unsteady in the violins and only acquired assurance when it was transferred to horns. A slight hint of melancholy tempered the lyricism of the second theme. The third movement is intended “to express the basic character of a heavy melancholy man…”. Gilbert didn’t seem to understand or be able to convey Nielsen’s description. The conductor’s flexible treatment of tempo was unnatural; the repeated falling-seconds sounded anything but weepy; powerful climaxes failed to evoke a tragic aspect; and the lack of coloration and appropriate balancing, especially in the overstated brass, made the stronger sections sound superficial, sometimes even incomprehensible, and simply loud. The finale, marked Allegro sanguineo, concludes the work in unbuttoned character, Nielsen “tried to sketch a man who storms thoughtlessly forward in the belief that the whole world belongs to him.” Gilbert started out handsomely – briskly and confident – but during the development when the harmony shifts to the minor, he overplayed his hand, the music taking on a more-morose quality than the composer intended. The sotto voce cello passage sounded too tearful, but as the main theme returned, its sanguine assertiveness was restored, and the work came to a boisterous conclusion. It seems that Gilbert intends to record a Nielsen symphony cycle. Hopefully by then he will dig deeper into The Four Temperaments to adequately capture all its various moods.

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