Monday, May 24, 2010

mahler five, not so alive

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov, conductor

Detlev Glanert, Theatrum bestiarum, Songs and Dances for Large Orchestra
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5

A Mahler symphony performance is no longer that big of a deal. This is a bit weird--even just ten years ago, these symphonies were the gems of every orchestra season, that night where the critics and audience flock to see the rarity of over a hundred musicians sawing away on stage. Now, critics and audiences still do their flocking, but Mahler is pretty much everywhere; it seems that almost every major orchestra in the U.S. and Europe is embarking on, or continuing, a full Mahler cycle next season. The Chicago Symphony has done practically a full cycle in the four years I've been here: I've seen them perform the First, Second, Third, Sixth, Seventh, and now the Fifth. I missed their Fourth, and the Ninth will be next season. We don't talk anymore about Mahler specialists or Mahler revivalists--everyone conducts his music, though some better than others.

But just because it's possible to see a Mahler Fifth in a dozen cities around the world any given season, doesn't mean that it puts anyone off the hook for delivering a transcendent performance. I was excited for my seventy minutes of instrumental Mahler, and was decidedly underwhelmed by Semyon Bychkov's conducting. At points, Mahler's Fifth actually became boring, a feat I did not know possible.

The Fifth is somewhat of an oddity among the symphonies, really the only purely absolute symphony in his output, as the only instrumental one without strong programmatic connotations. The First has its Des Knaben Wunderhorn quotations and fragments; the Second through Fourth their vocalists and world-shattering extra-musical associations; the Sixth its implications of fate and death; the Seventh its "Song of the Night" designation; and the Ninth its swan-song and farewell to the world. Here, though, we have music about music, from the opening funeral march echoing Beethoven to the ruckus of the Bach-inspired finale. Perhaps more than any other Mahler symphony, it allows a conductor to produce a clear musical vision and interpret the music without being overladen with concerns of reincarnation, doom, or transcendent suffering.

Unfortunately, Bychkov had no particular insights into the work. It started off nicely, with the Chris Martin's glorious trumpet fanfares, and we seemed in for a sensitive reading. But the first movement lacked any sense of urgency: not snappy enough rhythmically for a funeral march, but not slow or lugubrious enough for a personal mark. Everything seemed to drag, and the whole piece lacked the Viennese lilt necessary for any great Mahler performance. And you don't need to be Austro-German to pull that off: Bernstein did it, Tilson-Thomas does it, James Levine does it, Gustavo Dudamel does it. Luckily we were blessed with the CSO brass; Martin's gorgeous, rich trumpet was a beam of sound cutting through the murkiness of the interpretation.

The second movement showed Bychkov's faults most clearly: where one expected a crackle of energy and a palpable sense of exigency, there was none. The gorgeous slow section did not gleam in the way it should. As the music gradually transformed to hopeful, even victorious, teetering on the edge of crashing back into the chaotic opening section, Bchkov gave no indication of these conflicting emotions. Luckily the level of playing was so high that it almost didn't matter, with triumphant brass chorales, burnished strings, and tight ensemble work in the sarcastic little coda.

We were also, alas, damned by the CSO brass. I hate, hate, hate to have to specify members of any orchestra to fault for a performance, but Dale Clevenger's horn playing has, particularly this season, become unacceptable for an orchestra of this caliber. It was sad to see him struggle with the massive solo part in the third movement scherzo--strange buzzing sounds emitted, he sounded constantly breathless, and notes shared with other instruments were completely out of tune. Chris Martin's trumpet stole his melody right out from under him, giving the music the heft and attention it deserves. And with such poor intonation, Clevenger nearly butchered the key structural moment when a single note is passed between the horns (the other horns sounded lovely). Fortunately , this was the only movement Bychkov had some success with, elegantly shaping the ländler, with its opening bustle of strings and clarinets and grotesque, bizarre ending with the solo oboe submerged in brass.

Bychkov put down his baton for the Adagietto, an hopeful indication that this might be an individual statement, some music from the soul. Alas, these sounds from another world, with celestial harp and strings, were far from that. Bychkov led a movement stuck somewhere in an awkward and uncomfortable middle ground, between letting the music unfold and coaxing out a specific interpretation. This music can either be micro-managed, with the conductor assuming the role of shaping every single phrase, or it can be allowed to float and handle itself: somehow Bychkov did both and neither, and the molten music just fell flat.

With roughly ringing horns, the orchestra arrived at the final rondo. Bychkov played up its rustic, earthy qualities well and managed the Bachian counterpoint quite nicely. But the best parts of the movement lie in those weird moments and interludes, with strange instrumental juxtapositions emerging, and for those Bychkov didn't deliver. There were stirring final moments, after which the music furiously spins away, but by the end the orchestra seemed to take over the interpretation, leaving Bychkov along for the ride.

Theatrum bestiarum, receiving its U.S. premiere, fit well with the Mahler. Judging by this work (I'm not familiar with any other part of Glanert's output), the composer belongs to the post-Romantic aesthetic of German composers--much more Henze than Lachenmann. But the real model for this music is Shostakovich. A pungent opening chord (apparently composed of twenty-five notes) sets a scene not unfamiliar to many of Shostakovich's symphonies: groaning basses, sardonic winds, sputtering brass, and spectral ghosts of violins. Tension gradually builds, the massive chord seems to return, and the brass play a kind of greasy chorale. Glanert's use of heavily dissonant, blaring organ evokes the sacred theatricality of Messiaen. We get more effects, a different orchestration of what I think was the same chord, an acerbic section with strings sliding around, a circus-like romp, and then Shostakovich takes over completely--a mega-loud climax falls apart to reveal solo string players, eerily quoting one of the Russian master's string quartets.

According to the program notes, Glanert attempted to draw upon the "musical essence" of his opera Caligula, focusing on its most horrible acts of violence: he says that "The work is an exploration of dangerous dreams and wishes, with an uncomfortable undertow." In many ways this brazen orchestral writing and sheer loudness is a German version of Corigliano's Circus Maximus, making art out of the vulgarities of modern life: the orchestra as the embodiment of excess. The CSO dispatched the piece with ease, and the duets between principal trumpet and trombone were excellent. After hearing Bychkov's undramatic Mahler, however, I wonder if he could have gotten a lot more out of this piece and the orchestra; it never really reached the heights of loudness and excess I was expecting.

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