Monday, March 29, 2010

tod und auferstehung

Align CenterOtto Dix, Tod und Auferstehung (1922) I. Der Selbstmörder (Erhängter)

Carnegie Hall Presents
San Francisco Symphony
Westminster Symphony Choir
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Katarina Karnéus, mezzo-soprano
Laura Claycomb, soprano

Mahler, Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection"

Ah, Mahler 2. I should put a disclaimer at the top of this review: it’s almost my favorite piece ever (that goes to Opus 111, a story for another day).

Dix, Tod und Auferstehung II. Schwangerschaft

MTT has been perfecting his Mahler over the past decade in San Francisco, taking the best of Bernstein’s interpretations and leaving some of the fatty excess behind. But before I delve into the performance, I want to talk briefly about something I saw at the Neue Galerie earlier Friday evening. Promenading through their pictures at the Otto Dix exhibition (see what I did there?) I discovered a series of drawings by Dix titled Tod und Auferstehung. Now, in 1888, the year of Mahler’s Second, resurrection in Germany must have seemed like a pretty good deal. You die before the beginning of the symphony, get a certifiably dramatic funeral march, a gradual parade of nature and eternal light, and then an epic, half-hour Auferstehung. The hero comes back to live, everyone gives a standing ovation, we all go home happy. German spirits in the 1880s were high (Mahler was working primarily in Leipzig and Prague at the time), with the arrogance of Bismarck's unification and Prussian military dominance still in the air.

Dix, Tod und Auferstehung III. Lustmord

In the wake of humiliating defeat in World War I, the prospect of a heroic death and a mystical, quasi-Christian resurrection was not so simple (not that I am calling Mahler 2 simple). Instead we get Lustmord. I'm not sure if Dix's six drawings depict a specific narrative. But we have suicide (via hanging), pregnancy, sex murder, war, more war, and finally the hint of resurrection. Rather than a single, titanic hero put to death and brought back to life, Dix creates a collage of death representing the destruction of Europe, the wasteland of Germany, and the inanity of war. No life breathes in the belly of the pregnant woman, as she stands over a severed head. Dix is known for his utter crassness in detailing the most horrid visuals of wartime, and these six drawings are no exception. Death, as conceived by Dix, overturns Mahler's affirming tranfiguration. It's either a pathetic self-induced strangulation, a sadistic sex murder, or bloody and honor-less war. One can imagine Mahler's hero in some kind of heroic battle, or maybe even stabbed in the back like Siegfried; for Dix, there are no heroes.

Dix, Tod und Auferstehung IV. Die Barrikade

Most interesting is the final drawing of the set, depicting the funeral of Dix's protagonist (I use that term loosely), with his spirit floating above the processional. This is not the public resurrection of Mahler, with hundreds of voices intoning "Prepare yourself to live!" Instead, Dix gives us something more private, and more pathetic. It's not clear if the spirit is floating up to heaven, coming back to earth, or simply watching his funeral Tom Sawyer-style. But none of the mourners pay him or the coffin any attention; he is just one of the many dead, no special titan worthy of any particular resurrection. It's an eerie portrayal, the polar opposite of Mahler's rhapsodic Aufstehung.
Dix, Tod und Auferstehung V. Toter Soldat

Anyway, back to MTT and the SF Symphony. The orchestra played a rich and precise opening, with whiplash winds and growling low strings. MTT brought out each effect in the funeral march well, without going overboard--the huge "shock" effect right before the recap, with a moment of cataclysmic silence followed by the opening low-strings machine-gun attack, came across perfectly. And before the final build-up to the end of the movement, there was a beautiful moment where time stopped, with transparent and lithe string tremolos.
Dix, Tod und Auferstehung VI. Begräbnis

MTT phrased the second movement carefully, transforming the leisurely ländler into a kind of slow-motion Beethoven scherzo. At times it was a bit sluggish and could have used more lilt, but overall the style came across. San Francisco's orchestra is not quite at the level of those in Chicago or New York, as evidenced by the fuzzy and imprecise pizzicati section. The beginning the third movement was also rough but locked in quickly, with excellent violin solos by concertmaster Alexander Barantschnik, who played with lovingly old-skool slides. MTT created a massively chilling cry of despair, the huge deceptive cadence towards the end of the movement, one of those climactic and badass Mahler moments.

Mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus gave the weakest performance of the evening, in a rather forced and staid Urlicht--she did not capture the anguished, pre-Resurrection atmosphere of the folk song, and her vibrato was too wobbly for me. But the Resurrection itself was epic from the rumbling start. MTT finally went all-out, milking each climax without heading into the schamltz direction. The San Francisco brass were particularly impressive, with each chorale hushed and balanced just right (the woodwinds, though, had a number of weak moments, with disappointing oboe and piccolo solos).

Unfortunately, the sustained hum of the first choral entrance was matched in volume by our favorite New York coughing and rustling. It's amazing the sheer density of coughs this audience can put it in just a minute or two. But the last ten minutes were certifiably awesome, and the hero definitely got Resurrected. This is music that I can't describe because it moves me so deeply; I just cannot come up with the words. So I will simply say that MTT and the orchestra nailed it.

The Otto Dix paintings are courtesy of the Galerie Nierendorf website, and can be viewed fully here.