Wednesday, November 21, 2018

WQXR / Carnegie Hall: Andris Nelsons Conducts Mahler No. 5

On Monday evening WQXR broadcast live from Carnegie Hall a concert featuring the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by its Music Director Andris Nelsons, performing works by HK Gruber and Mahler.

The program opened with Gruber's Aerial (1998-1999), a concerto for trumpet and orchestra that Gruber had written for Håkan Hardenberger, the trumpet virtuoso who premiered the piece in London in 1999 and who was also soloist at Monday evening's concert.  The work consisted of two movements representing aerial views of landscapes (hence the title) entitled respectively "Done with the compass—Done with the chart!" and "Gone dancing."  The first, a slow movement whose title was taken from the Emily Dickinson poem "Wild nights—Wild nights!," combined multiphonics, jazz and a cow horn.  The second movement was an imaginary aerial view of a planet from which all inhabitants had disappeared, leaving behind only a sign that read "Gone dancing."

As one could well conclude from the preceding, Gruber is something of a maverick in contemporary German music and has been hailed as the principal force behind the "Third Viennese School."  The work, complete with spacey sound effects in the early part, was highly accessible and was very well received by the audience.  The trumpet part, in particular, was for the most part mellow and even downright blusey at times.  To me, though, the work seemed more showmanship than music.

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.  This deficiency was very much in evidence at Monday evening's performance.  I also found the rendition of the adagietto, beautiful as it is, too drawn out and ethereal for my taste.  Rather than an integral part of the symphony, it seemed here more a dreamlike interlude.

The archived performance is available for listening on WQXR's website.

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