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Nézet-Séguin conducts Mahler (2nd review)BY: Robert Zaller 01.28.2012
Yannick Nézet-Séguin returned to his new Orchestra on a flying visit but with a weighty load: Mahler’s titanic Sixth Symphony, which shared the program with Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. The lightly scored Bach was a bit swamped in Verizon Hall’s cavernous spaces, but Mahler’s mightiest score amply filled it in a disciplined and expressive reading.
Philadelphia Orchestra: Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5; Mahler, Symphony No. 6. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor. January 26-27, 2012 at Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Sts. (215) 893-1999 or www.philorch.org.
Yannick’s first big testROBERT ZALLER
Yannick Nézet-Séguin returned to conduct his new orchestra, but only for a Thursday and Friday concert. He gave good measure, though, performing the Bach Fifth Brandenburg from the harpsichord and then—a work that usually stands alone, and certainly fills a concert program—Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. For an encore, he came out after the performance to discuss the program for the still-considerable proportion of the near-capacity audience that remained.
Mahler himself had an interest in re-orchestrating the work of his predecessors, wishing them the sometimes dubious benefit of a late Romantic sound. We’ve come nearly full circle the other way, although some still take a guilty pleasure in Stokowskified Bach or the transcriptions of Elgar, Busoni et al.
(I know of no French composer interested in such improvements, except of course for the superb Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which trumps all rivals not because it’s close to Mussorgsky’s rough-hewn style but because it’s so damn good on its own terms).
Lean harpsichord sound
Nézet-Séguin kept his Bach lean, which made for a somewhat lost sound in the cavernous expanses of Verizon Hall but also concentrated the ear. The Philadelphia Orchestra is a Romantic band, and the strings can’t help sounding a little lush even when they’re bowing as lightly as possible. They shed a little weight as the piece proceeded; and, of course, the slow movement is simply the exquisite trio consisting of flute (Jeffrey Khaner), violin (David Kim) and harpsichord.
Nézet-Séguin is a capable keyboard performer, although (as he’s the first to admit) not in the league of Christoph Eschenbach or Wolfgang Sawallisch. At the beginning, his sound was hard to pick out at all amid the other instruments, but of course he was fully exposed in the first-movement cadenza, where but for a single audible slip and a couple of questionable ritards he acquitted himself well.
Mahler’s Sixth is for my money the greatest of his symphonies, and therefore the greatest symphony of the last century— or, to be more precise, of the past 108 years. This is certainly not to disparage the later symphonies, but nowhere else did Mahler achieve such concentrated vision on so large a canvas.
This is in part because the Sixth is, uniquely among Mahler’s works, rooted in a classical four-movement, purely instrumental symphonic form, even if distends that form in the colossal finale to what seems its outermost possible limits. (The First Symphony is now performed as a four-movement work, but it originally had an additional Intermezzo, and has no true slow movement.)
From the stabbing chords in the lower strings that usher in the martial first theme of the opening Allegro energico, ma non troppo— a march tune at once striding and sardonic in Mahler’s inimitably self-reflexive style, that always says two things at once, or rather seems to cancel its own utterance in the act of making it— the music moves forward on what seems an inexorable mission to the final hammer-blows some 80 minutes later, even though it encompasses a world astonishingly variegated in mood and sound in between.
It’s as if Mahler wanted to offer his verdict on life in this score, but not before having evoked and engaged it to the full; hence, perhaps, the title of “Tragic” that he originally gave the Sixth (but withdrew after the first performance). Of course, one could similarly describe all of his symphonies; but in the Sixth the sense of a controlling vision from first to last is most compelling.
Changing his mind
Given this (for want of a better description) contestable unity, it’s surprising that no consensus exists on the order of the Sixth Symphony’s inner movements, an achingly dark andante and a scherzo whose own weight is relieved only by a brief middle section. Mahler placed the scherzo first on both the autograph manuscript and the published score, but played the two movements in reverse order in the three performances he conducted in his own lifetime.
There is some evidence, including the testimony of his widow Alma, that Mahler changed his mind again before he died. My own sense is that the andante leads most cogently into the enormous turbulence of the finale, but you can play the music convincingly either way, as Nézet-Séguin did in placing the andante first in this performance. Whether that’s a tribute to the driving force of the overall musical vision or, alternatively, a testament to its essential heterogeneity, is of course a matter of each listener’s experience.
Nézet-Séguin asserted his own authority over the score from the outset. He kept the orchestral balanced throughout, and his encouragement of open bowing in the andante gave the music an extra dimension of expressiveness. The Orchestra responded unflaggingly, too, as Mahler piled fury on fury in the finale down to principal percussionist Christopher Deviney’s last, crushing hammer blows.
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