Friday, March 31, 2017

San Francisco Symphony Previews the Mahler it will Take to Carnegie

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) led the San Francisco Symphony in the first of four performances of the second program that they will perform in Carnegie Hall at the end of next week. The entire program was devoted to Gustav Mahler, beginning with the Adagio (first) movement from his tenth symphony in F-sharp major and following the intermission with his first symphony in D major. This made for a slightly unbalanced distribution, since the Adagio lasts about half an hour, while the D major symphony runs more on the order of an hour. Separating them by an intermission blunted the idea of the late movement serving as an “overture” for the early symphony; but, given the stylistic gulf between these two works, that separation was probably a good idea.

There are probably as many well-formulated arguments in favor of playing the F-sharp major Adagio in isolation as there are well-considered supports for keeping it in the context of a full five-movement symphony, even if the latter can be no more than a performing edition resulting from intense scholarship. My own preference is for the five-movement version; and I shall not even begin to try to dispute the “isolationists.” MTT certainly does an excellent job of presenting the Adagio as a composition unto itself; and one can even argue that his presentation unfolds a self-contained narrative arc. That arc covers a journey from an uncertain restlessness that ultimately terminates in a sense of inner calm.

That sense of restlessness emerges through a variety of highly imaginative devices, some of which can be found in past Mahler scores while others forge paths into new territory. Most disquieting for the listener is the opening passage, a long stretch of monody played only by the violas in unison that almost seems to represent a helpless sense of disorientation. This is followed immediately (no Classical bridge devices here!) by a second theme that is literally spread out across the entire ensemble. The entire movement is scored in a way that only makes real sense when the first and second violins are facing each other, because the very sense of that second theme only emerges through its migration from one section of the ensemble to another. By the time he began work on this movement, Mahler had mastered this rhetorical device; and one can only really appreciate it in a concert setting in which one is aware of the seamless peregrinations (and sometimes cinematic “dissolves”) of the theme across the entire “floor plan” of the orchestra.

One also comes to appreciate how specific physical locations serve to establish different dispositions of expression. Thus, one is as likely to confront abrupt changes as smooth ones. Furthermore, as the movement develops, Mahler gets more and more involved in the superposition of his elements as a rhetorical device. This comes to a climax about two-thirds of the way through the movement, when the prevailing quietude is abruptly interrupted.

The interruption amounts to a full-bore chorale declaimed by the entire brass section. The contributing instruments then withdraw, leaving the first trumpet (Mark Inouye) to sustain a high A. Different sections of the orchestra then enter, each providing its own distinct chord to “harmonize” that A. However, harmony is the last thing Mahler had in mind. When all of those chords are superimposed, they cover all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. All the instruments withdraw, leaving the trumpet alone again; but then they all return simultaneously in what may be the first documented instance of a tone cluster. This is one of those cases in which those with biographical knowledge can easily imagine Mahler staring Death in the face, a defiant rejection of the submissiveness of the “Maiden” in that poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, best known for having been set as a song (D. 531) by Franz Schubert. (Mahler planned a string orchestra arrangement of Schubert’s D. 810 string quartet whose second movement is a set of variations on that song. However, he only completed that second movement.)

Confrontation is then followed by resignation. The dynamic level drops quickly, and the coda introduces a new theme through which the restlessness of the two opening themes can finally find closure. From that point of view, the Adagio movement is a “closed story” with a perfectly valid conclusion; and last night MTT could not have done a better job of telling that story.

The first symphony also involves narrative qualities of disclosure that unfold over a sustained duration. While the first movement is decidedly more “Classical” in its structure, it is distinguished by an introduction that threatens to overwhelm the exposition. However, where the thematic materials of the F-sharp major Adagio unfold as elaborately wandering paths, the introduction to the opening movement of the first symphony barely advances beyond manifold ways of looking at a descending fourth. From one point of view, one might say that Mahler was playing with a bird call; but it might be fairer to say that, in that single interval, he was trying to capture the full extent of nature itself (which keeps getting interrupted by distant fanfares).

Here, again, one might make a case for a narrative thread. This time, however, one can follow that thread through the full cycle of the symphony’s four movements. The narrative is one of opposition between an idealized sense of the pastoral (which is distilled to its essence through that descending fourth) and the intrusions of worldly brutality (first revealed through those distant fanfares). That worldliness is particularly emphasized in the peasant dancing of the second movement and the funeral march of the third. That third movement includes one of two references to Mahler’s earlier song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (songs of a wayfarer). Having endured all the slings and arrows of unrequited love, the protagonist of the song cycle lies down under a linden tree, finding rest for the first time in a “pure” natural setting. The third movement of the first symphony suggests that he never wakens from his slumber.

If the F-sharp major Adagio had a relatively straightforward rise-and-fall dynamic contour, the entire first symphony is a roller coaster of dynamic levels. This makes it a bit of a challenge to identify where those “highest peaks” of climax are to be found. One peak is clearly evident in the coda of the first movement; and Mahler’s decision to have it return in the final movement was clearly a matter of well-calculated symmetrical design. However, in the fourth movement that moment is clearly not the last word. The conductor is thus faced with the challenge of recalling the shock value from the first movement while preparing the listener for shocks yet to come.

Unfortunately, MTT did not quite achieve this effect in handling the conclusion of this movement. As in the past, the horn players stood (as instructed by the score) during the coda. However, this visual cue was not accompanied by a sense that the intensity of the moment was still rising and would keep rising until the abruptness of the final measure. It goes without saying that this is a rhetorical challenge that is extremely difficult to confront, but it involves figuring out how to hold back on the first signs of Mahler’s grand gestures to make sure that the grander ones to come are recognized as such. Thus, while one could definitely appreciate the impact of the occasion, that sense of a “highest peak” at the conclusion never quite registered.

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