Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Peter Mattei (baritone)
The MET Orchestra
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 22 December, 2013
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
When James Levine was recording Mahler’s symphonies in the 1970s and early-1980s with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, and Philadelphia Orchestra, he was considered among the finest conductors of this music. Unfortunately Levine never finished that cycle, for RCA, Symphonies 2 and 8, and Das Lied von der Erde, ‘missing’ (although he did record the latter for Deutsche Grammophon). His Chicago version of the Seventh Symphony was a highlight. It gives me great pleasure to report that despite his recent physical challenges Levine generated here an even more energetic performance of this complex and often misunderstood Symphony than he did more than thirty years ago.
To open the concert, Peter Mattei joined the MET Orchestra in Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), an early song-cycle from which Mahler transplanted melodies into his First Symphony. Mattei used his robust voice to good advantage in expressing the moods that pour forth from the tormented rejected lover, beginning the first of the Lieder with a cynical sneer, making it clear that he is not the bridegroom. Levine took the Ländler phrases with carefree abandon, contrasting the gaiety of the wedding with the singer’s morose pondering. The next song, the rather temperate ‘I Went This Morning over the Fields’, was too restrained to evoke the music’s youthful exuberance, but in the stormy ‘I have a Glowing Knife’, Levine enhanced the wild introduction with fierce intensity that felt like painful thrusts to the heart. Mattei burst out in deepest distress, unable to find rest from suffering, and when the storm receded, his cries of woe gradually weakened, exhausted by inconsolable grief, then pleading to join his beloved in death. A chilling sense of dread hovered over the final ‘The Two Blue Eyes’. Enhanced by Mattei’s sensitive treatment misery finally giving way to reconciliation with the tragedy of lost love. A few messy entrances and occasional intonation problems from the MET Orchestra did not seriously detract from the fine performance.
Mahler’s Seventh Symphony has been assailed as disjointed, excessively long and bewildering, bombastic and threadbare. Many commentators, in an attempt to explain the work, have expanded upon the significance of Mahler calling the second and fourth movements ‘Nachtmusik’ and also his off-hand mention of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in reference to the first movement, as grounds for the unwarranted subtitle of the Symphony as “The Song of the Night”. Consequently many conductors try to give the first four movements a persistently dark, mysterious aspect, an approach that may work well at times, but which undercuts the music’s witty and blatantly humorous aspects. Recognizing all of the work’s aspects would require both an understanding of fin de siècle Vienna and an in-depth acquaintance with Mahler’s other works, but the Seventh abounds with fascinations that should enable it to stand on its own without explanation – although comprehending the funny bits does add to an enjoyable experience.
Levine is well aware of this. If his reading plays up the brash and boisterous aspect of the outer movements (justified more in the last than the first), he certainly is also mindful of the subtle witticisms evident in the middle movements – such as the confusion of march and waltz ideas and an outrageous ‘wrong’ note in the brass in ‘Nachtmusik I’, and the weird contrast between the spooky opening of the scherzo and the extroverted waltz that follows. Levine captured these and the many other spoofs with a raucous sense of sheer merriment. Even the serenade of ‘Nachtmusik II’ is laced with frivolity. Levine’s relaxed pace for the delicate banter of woodwinds, spiced with guitar and mandolin, and set against a rhapsodic ‘love’ theme, captured a romantic spirit without undercutting the perky ‘chirping’ figure that functions as an unwelcome intruder. This disparity is most telling when a bassoon boldly squawks out against sustained tones in the strings’ evocation of the perfumed evening air, beautifully played. Woodwinds lent a delicate frippery and the brass brought a warm glow – rather different from its unrestrained and sometimes overpowering contribution to the outer movements.
To open the Symphony, tenor-horn soloist Denson Paul Pollard played the main theme with a stentorian character, a few cracks being readily overlooked. Levine slowed up for the dynamic second subject (without the support of any such marking in the score), giving it more thrust than usual, and reinforced the rhapsodic character of the third one, wonderfully played by the violinists. But the movement’s subtleties were sometimes lost in unrelenting tempos and the over-emphasis of demonstrative passages, thus neglecting the all-important sense of strong contrasts, which is an even more extreme quality of the finale. There, out of the audaciously emboldened timpani solo, the brass rings out with a sequence of boisterous marches, one of which Mahler derived from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. But Mahler’s adaptation is weakened by the omission of one bar from Wagner’s original, making it sound rather pedantic, which Mahler undoubtedly meant as a joke.
The bold opening suddenly disappears, leading to a rather miniscule second subject – a diminutive subject based upon the ‘Waltz’ from Franz Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow). The juxtaposition of a minuet and the Wagner-derived idea becomes so convoluted, as if trying to bring the Symphony to an end. Levine made the dance gradually lose its delicacy and become just as brash as its buddy. By keeping the energy and dynamics in high gear Levine held our attention by welding what might seem endless diversions into a fully formed structure. The final peroration, enormous as well as energetic, was spoiled only a bit by out-of-pitch bells.
This was a pleasing performance mostly because of its brazen character and vigorous impulse, played with full force by an outstanding orchestra under the direction of a clued-up and committed Mahlerian.