New York Philharmonic/Jaap van Zweden – Mahler’s First Symphony – Yuja Wang plays Prokofiev

Prokofiev
Piano Concerto No.3 in C, Op.26
Mahler
Symphony No.1

Yuja Wang (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden


Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 12 April, 2012
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Yuja Wang. Photograph: yujawang.dreamhosters.comSince her first appearance with the New York Philharmonic in 2006, at age 19, Yuja Wang has embarked on a spectacular international career. She is one of those pianists who make even the most difficult technical passages seem easy. Everything flows naturally, technique a mere tool for musical expression. In the outer movements of the Prokofiev she almost got carried away by her own facility, making the orchestra and conductor struggle to keep up, but generating great excitement. However, notably in the middle movement, she also conjured an almost impressionistic atmosphere, and maximized Prokofiev’s playfulness. Jaap Van Zweden kept things together, but there were many missed opportunities for supporting the piano with a more detailed, colorful accompaniment.

Jaap van Zweden. Photograph: IMG ArtistsA prodigy violinist, a concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra at the age of 18, Jaap van Zweden came to conducting only in his mid-30s. He was named Music Director of the Dallas Symphony in 2008. It was all the more disappointing then to hear a performance of Mahler’s First Symphony which emphasized surface effects and showed little respect for the score and understanding of the music.

If there ever was a composer who thought in extra-musical dimensions and meticulously marked his compositions to convey as much as possible by way of musical notation and written instructions, it was Mahler. His tempo relationships are precisely calculated to underpin the structure and to build climaxes; his dynamics, together with masterful orchestration, serve to indicate moods.

From the very beginning van Zweden would have none of that. The dreamy introduction was delivered matter-of-factly, the main theme immediately gained speed, and by the time he reached the ‘Haupttempo’ he was already so fast that he had nowhere to go for subsequent accelerations (which also happened several more times). At the end of the development there is a lengthy section where the orchestra gets slower and heavier, meant to build an ominous mood and increase tension, which eventually gets resolved by a glorious moment in the horns. But van Zweden sped into this, without adding any orchestral weight, rendering this resolution absolutely meaningless, just loud – as he did in the corresponding passage in the finale.

There were many such instances of totally ignoring not only the letter but also the spirit of the score, such as at the beginning of the second movement, when the bowing van Zweden asked for would not allow for Mahler’s precisely indicated rest, a little lift to produce the feeling of a Ländler. And tempo relationships remained problematical: stodgy and pedantic at the beginning, then suddenly shifting into high gear when Mahler wants only ‘Vorwärts’ – forward, an accelerando. At other times slow sections were stretched to the limit, producing shaky ensemble when the resolutions were finally allowed to happen. Lastly, there was the fast speed at the end of the finale when the horn-players stand. Mahler marks it with three indications – ‘Triumphal’, ‘nicht eilen’ (don’t rush), and ‘Pesante’ (heavy). None of this mattered to van Zweden, who rushed through it, with the brass urged to blare as loudly as possible (a mere fortissimo is indicated).

Dynamics hardly ever reached a true pianissimo, and loud sections were usually pushed beyond any semblance of a pleasant sound, making the strings and winds sound harsh and shrill, and the brass well-nigh intolerable. Van Zweden’s conducting technique encouraged such excesses, punching at the orchestra from a boxer’s crouch, but providing little in the way of guiding it to produce a coherent, thoughtful, much less an insightful performance. Milking a Mahler symphony for all its effects and driving the orchestra to a mad finish will produce a Pavlovian standing ovation – at the expense of letting us experience how much more Mahler had to say!

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