New York Philharmonic/Maazel – Weber, Mozart & Mahler

Oberon – Overture
Exsultate, jubilate, K165
Symphony No.4

Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano)

New York PhilharmonicLorin Maazel

0 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 20 September, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

Lorin Maazel’s reading of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was the main attraction of this New York Philharmonic concert at Avery Fisher Hall, preceded by less than half-an-hour of music prior to the interval. Heidi Grant Murphy was the soprano soloist in the final movement of the Mahler and in Mozart’s motet, “Exsultate, jubilate”.

The overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s opera “Oberon” served as the evening’s curtain-raiser. Weber was a far more influential figure in the Romantic Movement than the few of his compositions that remain in the active repertory would suggest. “Der Freischütz” was an important precursor to Wagner’s operas, but is the only Weber opera performed with any regularity today. However, the overture to that work as well as those for “Oberon” and “Euryanthe” are concert-hall staples. Maazel gave the “Oberon” overture a rousing reading from the opening horn-call – representing the magic horn that figures prominently in the opera’s hopelessly convoluted plot – to the stirring conclusion.

A much-reduced ensemble accompanied Murphy in a somewhat unusual performance of Mozart’s “Exsultate, jubilate”. The Philharmonic used the orchestration of the ‘Salzburg version’ of the motet, which Mozart prepared for a performance on Trinity Sunday, 1779, and in which flutes were substituted for the oboes of the original 1773 version. However, Murphy sang the traditional text rather then the Salzburg revision, in which the opening aria and the ensuing recitative were rewritten to add references to the Trinity and to Mary in place of praise of song, nature and souls at peace. This was apparently a relatively late decision, as the programme booklet printed the Salzburg text and touted the event as “A Philharmonic Premiere, of Sorts.”

The simple orchestration – two flutes, two horns, strings and continuo (organ, cello and double bass) – and Maazel’s delicate and restrained direction created an ideal accompaniment to Murphy’s fluid and accurate singing. Her voice soared beautifully over the orchestra in the second aria, ‘Tu virginum corona’, and in the concluding ‘Alleluja’, but was occasionally overshadowed in the work’s earlier sections – always a pitfall for vocalists in such a large hall.

Mahler’s conception of his Fourth Symphony started with the final movement – an adaptation of his orchestral song “Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life), the text of which, drawn from the German folk-poetry anthology “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (The Youth’s Magic Horn), depicts a childlike vision of the joys of heaven. Mahler had originally intended to use the song in his Third Symphony, but when that work developed into one of a rather serious nature, the song’s lighter quality seemed out of place and he deferred its use, leaving only a few traces in the Third Symphony’s score.

In the Fourth, Mahler used a lighter orchestral sound than in his earlier symphonies, omitting trombones and tuba. He composed the first three movements to build up to and anticipate, both thematically and musically, the predetermined finale, which he re-orchestrated from its original version of some seven years earlier. Quotations and themes from the concluding song appear in the earlier movements, beginning in the symphony’s very first bar with the sleigh-bell and flute motif that would later separate the stanzas of the song.

Shortly after completing his Fourth Symphony, Mahler publicly renounced the concept of programme music, asking that his works be considered as ‘absolute music’. Through its first three movements, the Fourth could be thus analysed as a fairly conventional symphony: a sonata-form first movement, followed by a scherzo and an adagio. Yet the temptation to consider the programmatic ideas expressed both textually and musically in “Das himmlische Leben” and the relationship between those ideas and the orchestral movements that precede the song, to each of which Mahler had conceived (but did not publish) a programmatic movement title, is irresistible if not essential.

The episodic first movement, which was to have been titled ‘Die Welt als ewige Jetztzeit’ (The World as Eternal Now), is rich in thematic material that was intended to convey the soul’s innocent and unearthly joy, which the child’s voice is later to explain. Maazel’s reading of this movement was lively yet non-rushed with much emphasis on Mahler’s frequently changing tempos, and the strings and winds played with particular clarity.

The second movement scherzo featured brilliant playing by concertmaster Glenn Dicterow who, in the extensive violin solos used a second instrument with scordatura tuning (i.e., a tone higher than normal) to create a shrill, demonic sound: “Freund Hein spielt zum Tanz auf” (Friend Death is Striking Up the Dance). The idea here is that Death’s fiddling dispatches us to heaven. This movement also includes anticipatory quotations of thematic material from “Das himmlische Leben”.

The adagio, “Sankt Ursula selbst dazu lacht” (St Ursula Stands by Laughing), portrays calm, rest and bliss. This is one of Mahler’s loveliest movements, presenting variations on two themes. It opens lyrically on the cellos and is capped off by a striking coda, beginning with string arpeggios and scales and harp glissandos, then horn and trumpet fanfares accompanied by timpani, with harp, flutes, clarinets and strings dying away at the end. Maazel paused here as Murphy made her entrance, her white dress (she wore black for the Mozart) appropriate to the heavenly character she was about to portray.

Murphy was at her best in “Das himmlische Leben”, singing with a clarity and purity that reflected the song’s childlike text. The last stanza was particularly angelic, as she sang of the unsurpassed beauty of heavenly music led by St Cecilia, the patron saint of music. After her final words, “Alles für Freuden erwacht” (everything awakens for joy), the ending was truly magical with the harp accompanied first by the bass clarinet pp and cellos ppp, then by two horns pp and English horn ppp, and finally by a low E on the double basses ppp, which died out alone to end the symphony. So affecting was this ending that there was silence in the hall for nearly ten seconds before applause began.

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