Friday, June 1, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Mahler No. 5

Earlier this week I went to hear the second of the Met Orchestra's three subscription concerts at Carnegie Hall.  This has been a great season in New York City for those with a love of Mahler's music - I'd already attended five performances of his works before this - and on this occasion still another of his symphonies was featured together with one of Mozart's greatest works for violin.

The program opened with a performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 (1775) that featured as soloist James Ehnes,  a musician whom I had heard earlier this season for the first time when he played Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic.  The Mozart concerto is of course one of the most popular in the violin repertoire, a tour de force that is even more impressive when one considers that at the time of its composition Mozart was only nineteen years old.  It's filled with inventive touches.  For example, in the opening movement the fast allegro-aperto is abruptly interrupted upon the violin's first appearance; the instrument is introduced by a far slower adagio before the orchestra quickly returns to the original tempo.  And the stirring "Turkish" music that forms part of the final movement rondo is not only an original touch but also anticipates by seven years that used in the singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  Mozart was himself an expert violinist and it's curious that after having completed this work he ceased writing concerti for the instrument.  The reason perhaps is that the composer, once he had resettled in Vienna, wanted to establish his repuation as a piano virtuoso at a time when the fortepiano was still something of a novelty.  He may also have wanted to create an identity separate from that of his father Leopold, a formidable violinist who had authored one of the eighteenth century's most authoritative textbooks for that instrument.

After intermission, the concert ended with a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 5 (1901-1902).  Marking the start of a new century as well as a new direction in the composer's music, the No. 5 moved away from the programmatic content of the first four symphonies, collectively known as the Wunderhorn symphonies, to the sphere of absolute music.  This shift certainly reflected a new self-confidence on Mahler's part.  He was sure enough of himself, and his music, that he felt he no longer needed sung texts or ambiguous program notes to make himself understood.  He had now not only reached the pinnacle of his conducting career as music director of the Vienna Court Opera, then regarded as the world's finest, but he had also become engaged to Alma, "the most beautiful young woman in Vienna."   (It's almost obligatory to mention at this point that the fourth movement adagietto, whose correct tempo is forever argued among composers, was intended as an engagement present to Alma.)  But the fact that Mahler went back some ten years later to revise the orchestration is an indication that he may have overestimated his abilites.  As Jens Malte Fischer notes:
"In a letter to conductor Georg Göhler, he [Mahler] admitted that even as a forty-year-old composer at the height of his powers, he could still commit the sort of mistakes that a novice might make: the experience acquired in his first four symphonies let him down - a new style needed a new technique.  But while working of the Fifth Symphony he was not yet aware of this shortcoming."
Nor is the No. 5 without flaws even in the revised version.  The ending of the final movement is not entirely satsifying and suggests that Mahler, after the bold innovations of the earlier movements, was at a loss how to top them and so instead settled for what was essentially a compromise.

Each of the orchestra's three performances this season features a different conductor, and on this occasion it was the turn of Gianandrea Noseda whom I've heard several times at the Met and as a guest conductor with the London Symphony in a performance of Verdi's Requiem.  He's an excellent conductor and did extremely well with the Mozart concerto.  The rendition of Mahler's symphony, however, while certainly competent, left something to be desired.  Though the Met Orchestra is a world class ensemble, one had the impression while listening that not all the msuic's nuances were thoroughly realized.

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