The Germans have a great word for a death anniversary—Todestag—which we unfortunately lack. It’s a bit weird to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of someone’s death, but we do, and it’s not always the worst thing. It motivates the industry, allows for budgeting of occasionally-interesting festivals, and gets everyone excited. The best birthday/deathday celebrations are of composers who don’t necessarily define the repertoire list—Liszt last year, or Messiaen in 2008—and we get to hear a lot of music we wouldn’t otherwise.
Alas, Mahler rings out every year. It seems the great orchestras are now embarking on perpetual Mahler cycles, which anywhere between three and nine symphonies per season. I love, love, love me some Mahler, and I am 100% guilty of falling prey to the Mahler Industry. But not everyone needs to do Mahler all the time, which a Staatskapelle Berlin concert last week confirmed.
But before that, let’s talk about awesome Mahler. The Berlin Phil organized a last-minute Mahlerathon on the hundredth anniversary of his death, a one-off concert with their former director Claudio Abbado. We heard the adagio from the Tenth and Das Lied von der Erde—the ultimate music of farewell.
Abbado’s Mahler has a certain transparency—not of orchestral texture or balance, though there was much of that—but of presence. There is a kind of mystical impersonability to his conducting: rather than hearing an interpretation of Mahler (and Mahler, more than any other composer, yearns to be interpreted), we seem to be hearing the voice of Mahler himself. Whether it can be chalked up to his age, his recent recovery from cancer, or simply his magisterial technique, Abbado has the ability to simply disappear behind the music. He is so finely-tuned to the message that there doesn’t appear to be a medium at all between the composer’s voice and what floats out of the orchestra. There is Bernstein’s Mahler and Rattle’s Mahler and Gergiev’s Mahler and Mengelberg’s Mahler. With Abbado, we have just Mahler.
His volcanic account of the adagio from the Tenth, the composer’s third swan-song, showed the Berlin Phil at their most alive—the best they’ve sounded under anyone besides Rattle.
In Das Lied von der Erde, we saw three generations at work— Jonas Kaufmann (41), Anne Sophie von Otter (56), and the maestro himself (77)—to mixed results. The work is truly a symphony, not a song cycle, and the orchestra often overwhelmed Kaufmann’s small voice. Though he has a beautiful lyric tenor, he could have used more swagger in the drunken opening, and overall lacked the dominating presence required by the music. Von Otter had the dramatic nuance which Kaufmann lacked but often seemed distant from the music. I couldn’t help but compare her to Magdalena Kožená, whose Das Lied a few months ago was overwhelming. Abbado paced the music perfectly—it begins with a shudder and ends with a sigh—and the orchestra sounded phenomenal, with the added bonus of Emmanuel Pahud’s luxurious flute solos in Der Abschied. The symphony concludes with the twinkling timbres of celeste and mandolin, the apotheosis of a bittersweet end, and Abbado and the Philharmonic sent Mahler off in style.
A week after the deathabration, though, Mahler rolled over in his grave. James Levine was due to conduct the Staatskapelle Berlin in the Sixth Symphony, as well as play four-hands piano with Daniel Barenboim. Well, you can imagine how that turned out. Barenboim stepped up in Levine’s place, replacing the Sixth with the Ninth (a welcome change, since the Berlin Phil is playing the Sixth this coming week), and replacing the Schubert fantasy with a refined performance of Mozart’s sublime final piano concerto.
I was eager to hear Barenboim’s Mahler, and was hugely disappointed. Barenboim is a busy man, and I have the utmost respect for the ways he keeps busy. But last-minute Mahler benefits no one. The orchestra sounded under-rehearsed and it was never quite clear how well Barenboim knew the score—he was constantly glancing down at his music stand.
From the opening of the first movement, there was no clear direction from the podium, and the wrenching music passed listlessly. Often Barenboim looked strangely disengaged, except for in the more dramatic sections, when he would suddenly seize control. The result was a lazy patchwork, with the steady flow of Mahler’s music chopped up into erratic pieces. He achieved the right amount of brusqueness in the second movement Ländler and a compelling brutality in the Rondo-Burlesque, but never before have I been so completely bored by Mahler (and the Ninth is one of my favorites). The finale, one of the most breathtaking things ever written, lacked any sense of continuity, and the players seemed lost in the woods. Barenboim’s conducting was often indulgent, full of heaving motions and empty profundity: attempting to make a statement without having anything to say. Brass fracked notes, the woodwinds rolled in and out of tune, and the strings mostly held it together.
It isn’t difficult to hear Mahler’s music in Berlin; if you ventured a couple hours outside the city, you could catch an entire festival in Leipzig. A concert like this just begs the question: Warum?