Jill Grove (mezzo-soprano)
New York Choral Artists
The American Boychoir
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 17 February, 2010
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
This was the second of two Carnegie Hall concerts on consecutive evenings by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, led by its chief conductor, Mariss Jansons. The programme was given over entirely to a compelling performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony.
Although the published score lacks any explicit indication of an underlying programmatic structure, the composer’s autograph included evocative movement titles. Part I (as Mahler designated the monumental opening movement) was headed “Pan Awakes: Summer marches in”, whilst the five movements of Part II were given titles representative of a tiered cosmological structure of creation. The successive movements thus ascend from plants to animals, to mankind, to angels, and finally to love – by which Mahler meant not love of the earthly variety, but rather love of God. Although no such structure can be discerned from the music itself (apart from the sung texts), this performance was certainly consistent with the spirit of Mahler’s original programmatic scheme.
Jansons led the orchestra through the many changes of tempo, dynamics and orchestral colors in Part I, always with great musicality and maintaining the listener’s interest as the music’s mood shifted. The Concertgebouw Orchestra’s octet of horns launched the piece powerfully, sounding beautifully in unison and creating a distinct deep rumble in the Hall during the opening theme. The bass drum and cymbals added to the drama of the opening passages, with soft, extended bass drum solos serving as demarcations between divergent sections of the movement. Jansons nicely contrasted the two very different march rhythms and maintained precise dynamic control, giving both loud and soft passages their due. There were many fine solos in the opening movement, but the highlight was the brilliant playing of principal trombone Bart Claessens – a special treat, as this is the most prominent showpiece for that instrument in the classical orchestral repertory. At the end of the movement, Jansons stepped off the podium and observed a long pause, as Mahler’s score directs.
The opening section of the second movement was played with lyrical delicacy and a rustic charm that made it feel more like a country-dance than the courtly one that the marking of Tempo di Menuetto would suggest. This dance-music was interrupted by two faster-paced Trios, the first quite cheerful with three distinct rhythmic sections and the second longer and darker in feeling. In this movement, the woodwinds stood out, with the strings and harps also playing a substantial role, whilst the brass and percussion forces were much reduced and subdued (although there were some nice effects produced by the tambourine, triangle and rute).
The third movement, although entirely orchestral, is based on ‘Ablösung im Sommer’ (Relief in Summer), Mahler’s 1892 setting for voice and piano of a poem from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn“. Jansons and the orchestra brought out the close kinship of that melody and its orchestration to Mahler’s other compositions based on ‘Wunderhorn’ poems – including portions of both of his earlier symphonies. The highlights here were the posthorn solos, performed offstage in glorious, blooming tones by the orchestra’s principal trumpeter, Frits Damrow. Particularly lovely were several passages in which Damrow was joined by a pair of horns from within the orchestra.
The final three movements are played attacca, but each has its own distinct character. In the fourth movement, Jill Grove, stationed next to the harps at one side of the stage, gave a luminous rendition of ‘O Mensch! Gib acht!‘ (Oh Man! Take Heed!), the text excerpted from Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Also sprach Zarathustra”. Grove was in beautiful voice, clear and distinct in both tone and diction and producing a volume of sound that had no difficulty holding its own against Mahler’s scoring.
The solemn mood was suddenly left behind as the fifth movement began with the joyous ringing of bells, mimicked by the boy-choir’s “Bimm bamm” intonations, as the women’s chorus sang another ‘Wunderhorn’ poem, “Es sungen drei Engel” (Three Angels Were Singing). In response to Grove’s penitential entreaties, the women commanded that she not weep but rather pray, as the boys sang promises of the heavenly joy that will come to those who love God. The women choristers of New York Choral Artists and the American Boychoir sang with precision and excellent musicianship.
The lengthy final movement, the first of Mahler’s great Adagios, offered what was really the only extended opportunity of the evening to hear the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s strings in their full glory. And glorious they were, the lower strings generating a lush sound that created a powerful resonance, with the violins often soaring above with lyrical melodic lines. The entire orchestra played superbly here, with fine solos from flutes, piccolo, oboe, and violin, outstanding playing by the horns as they took up the opening theme, and the brass choir pointing the way toward the glowing coda in which the two timpanists’ staccato beats finally gave way to the amazing last chord that seemed to stretch on forever.