Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the major work on the program was Gustav Mahler’s fourth symphony in G major, performed by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). As anyone who has followed SFS programming under MTT’s directorship knows, Mahler has maintained pride of place in the repertoire. By my own personal account, this seems to have been my third encounter with the Mahler fourth in the SFS subscription series, having heard MTT conduct it in the past with both Measha Brueggergosman and Susanna Phillips as soprano soloist in the fourth (and final) movement, a setting of the folk poem “Das himmlische Leben” (life in heaven) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (the youth’s magic horn), the anthology compiled by Clemens Brentano and Achim van Arnim.
Last night the soloist was mezzo Isabel Leonard; and, once again, MTT demonstrated his well-informed approach to interpreting Mahler’s score, which excels in both breadth and depth. The fourth is one of the only two Mahler symphonies that usually clock in at less than an hour. The other is the first in D major; and, while both symphonies are vastly extensive in both scope of resources and rhetoric, the fourth tends to be more accessible, primarily because Mahler was on more secure footing as a composer by the time he began work on that symphony in June of 1899.
As he has done regularly in the past, MTT maintained consistent control over the breadth of Mahler’s resources, particularly when control involves “dissolving” from one combination of instruments to another during the statement of a single theme. It may well be that what distinguishes Mahler most, particularly in his symphonies, is his ability to unfold his melodic material without ever establishing a single focal point. In Mahler’s writing we appreciate how much a century has distanced the practice of music from an ensemble that sounds like an oversized string quartet with other instrumental sections added to provide “color.” It is through his adept management of what may be called “fluid focus” that MTT can tease out the expressiveness of not only Mahler’s marks on paper but also the many different dimensions of rhetoric that lie behind the notation, so to speak.
For her part Leonard effectively captured the naivety of how a child imagines what it is like in Heaven. There is nothing transcendent in these words. The child’s conception of heaven (with a grudging nod to Jean Piaget) consists entirely of worldly things and deeds, such as feasts and dances. Mahler interrupts this “ceremony of innocence” (apologies this time to William Butler Yeats) with sarcastic reflections that tend to involve the winds and the percussion; yet, by the time the poem has run its course, the instrumentation has settled down to a comforting serenity, accepting this child’s vision for the spirit, rather than the substance. This narrative approach to the song was probably MTT’s idea, but Leonard had no trouble working with it and reinforcing it with her own approaches to expressiveness.
If there was anything to criticize at all, it would have been MTT’s approach to the third (Ruhevoll) movement. This movement is structured as a double set of variations, and it is hard to believe that Mahler did not model it on the third movement (Adagio molto e cantabile) of Ludwig van Beethovens’s Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony in D minor. The two themes are both extended in duration in both the Beethoven and Mahler symphonies.
Variations only work when mind can first take in what is being varied. Beethoven’s sense of cantabile tends to invoke limitations of breath when singing; and one can “parse” the themes from Opus 125 in terms of where a singer would have to take a breath. “Ruhevoll” means simply “serene;” so it is not out of the question to wonder whether Mahler had a similar approach to cantabile in mind for his set of variations, linking the durations of his thematic elements to those limitations of breath. Unfortunately, MTT tended to stretch those durations to a point where they would be familiar only to those who already knew them; and those stretches undermined the impact of the variations that would follow.
As things turned out, MTT was more interested in the coda of this movement, a fanfare that seems symbolically to be opening the gates of Heaven. As in past performances, the vocalist only entered the stage as this fanfare unfolded. We then followed her through those gates, only to discover that we had entered a child’s imagination, a sharp and ironic contrast to the majestic rhetoric that had concluded the third movements. This is clearly where MTT had decided to focus his priorities; but I, for one, missed enjoying the more traditional approach to variation technique in the third movement.
The first half of the program was devoted entirely to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Leonard performed as soloist in “Exsultate, jubilate,” the K. 165 motet in four sections written for the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini. Authorship of the Latin text is unknown but may have been provided by Rauzzini. Mozart probably wrote this as a “show-off” piece for Rauzzini, since the words seem to be there only as pegs on which the composer could hang virtuoso passages to spotlight the soloist.
Joseph Hutchinson’s 1795 portrait on Venanzio Rauzzini (photographed by Mike Peel at the William Herschel Museum in Bath, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)
Leonard dealt with those passages with dexterity. Unfortunately, her approach to dynamics was not quite so dexterous. She tended to punch her high notes as if she were thinking about knocking them out of a ballpark. Equally inconsistent with the nature of the music was her physical bearing, which came across more like a cabaret soubrette than a devout Catholic singing the praises of the Almighty.
Dynamics were also problematic in MTT’s approach to the opening selection, the first SFS performance of the K. 509 set of six German dances. The appearance of reduced strings on the stage was promising. However, Mozart wrote this as “rustic” music with strong representations for winds (including a piccolo), brass, and timpani. As a result, too many of the passages for strings, particularly when they involved interleaving themes, were obscured by all of the other instruments. This was one of those cases in which overall balance should have been served by adding more strings to the mix, rather than reducing their numbers. The result was a rather awkwardly unbalanced galumphing account of what should have been a little joyous romp. It would appear that attention to Mahler detracted giving Mozart his due for his share of the program.