Concert Review: TSO’s Lieder of Mahler

Already more than a year ago, I brought some friends to attend this concert, at which the adagio of Mahler’s fifth symphony was played, followed by the entirety of his fourth symphony. In short, the strings in the adagio were wonderful, and the horns ruined Mahler 4. I haven’t heard (or even really heard of) that ensemble since.

But we were back at 中山堂 this evening only a week after Allan Pettersson’s fourth symphony got its Asian premiere, this time to hear Mahler’s fourth. The Taipei Symphony, as I have repeated many times, is impressive; they have a brisk, electric liveliness, a freshness even to familiar pieces like Beethoven’s Pastoral. So I was pleased to have the chance to hear them do another Mahler interpretation, and it’s the lightest of his works, his fourth symphony.

I’ve been in many discussions with people lately (as in, over the past year or so) about Mahler’s works, and in the same way that I’d suggest Beethoven 1 or 2 before 3 or 9, or Transfigured Night before Gurre-Lieder, I had always thought that Mahler’s first or fourth would be the place to go to start with his symphonies, but contrary to this ‘baby steps’ approach, not a few people I’ve chatted with have agreed that Mahler 2 was the work that opened their eyes to his genius. Saw that one last month.

We talked here about Mahler 4, around eight months ago, and I was excited to hear it live; some friends and acquaintances were also attending that evening (first real professional concert experience for one [hi, JL!]), and I was hoping for a good show. Varga was not with us this evening, instead we had a Japanese duo, soprano Mai Washio, and our conductor Norichika Iimori.

I won’t spend too much time talking about Rückert Lieder for a few reasons:

  • I’m rather unfamiliar with the works
  • We had bad seats for the acoustics in the hall
  • There were some kids sitting near us who talked through almost each work.

For the above reasons, I was actually quite nervous about enjoying the concert, hoping it wouldn’t be ruined by any of the above factors. That aside, I have these things to say:

  • The orchestra’s technique and skill in small, quiet passages was observable, the delicacy of certain solos, etc. was nice.
  • The conductor’s ability to manage the volume of the orchestra, to keep them ‘in their place,’ as it were, as an accompaniment to the soprano (although in a few spots they did drown her out).

These were the main points from the (very short) first half. Needless to say, though, the feature of the evening, for me, was the symphony.

I have passing thoughts about the difference between vocal musicians and symphonic musicians being similar to the difference between savory chefs and pastry chefs, but that’s definitely a topic for a different time.

Mahler 4, the composer’s smallest, lightest, most dainty, contribution to the repertoire, and yet still an hour long and rather large in scope, with a soprano, a tuned-up violin, monstrous-ish third movement, and all the rest. It’s a delightful piece, and as with any Mahler symphony, there’s the challenge of internal structure, balance, logic, and presentation.

I also don’t trust just anyone with my Mahler. I’m particular. I wasn’t so much that way about other folks, but it’s happening with my tastes in Brahms, Beethoven, Bruckner and other composers who don’t begin with B. So this Japanese guy I’ve never heard of, and his fellow countrywoman the soprano…. how would they handle this pristine ‘little’ Mahler work? I have a handful of my favorite recordings (Mehta and Reiner).

I was quite pleased. For one, the horns were on their game; they faltered in a few spots of the third movement, but overall, they lived up to the beauty and splendor they should have in such an exposed, significant role that Mahler gives them in almost every symphony. That aside, the interpretation I felt was very solid.

It had life, breath, energy; the first movement’s pauses and changes of tempo and character bordered on the Bernstein-esque in their dramatics, and some points almost lost their forward motion, but managed to keep the tension and momentum. The second movement, I feel, can be one of Mahler’s weakest, or else most difficult to interpret. It’s a bit repetitive, and can be boring if there’s not real character and life put into it, and there was. It was captivating throughout. I was pleased.

Perhaps the biggest challenge was in the third movement. It’s the real beast of the fourth, by far the longest movement, with passages that vary widely in emotion and expression, times when you feel it must be over, but turn the corner and there’s a whole new section to explore. As I spoke with the first timer and his friend for the evening, we chatted about this, how perhaps at first listen, the movement seems to go on forever, but after a few listens and a bit of digesting, it has its internal logic, and how every ‘paragraph’ or ‘section’ serves its purpose. Attention spans can be challenged, especially for the uninitiated, but I felt like the tension and logic with the way it was presented was balanced, no over-gilding of lilies, nothing too fantastical, but neither was it bland. There are some real turns in the third movement, and they need to be presented in a logical manner, so they all make sense, but there also should be a sense of contrast and surprise, and I think all that was there. There were a few moments where some fatigue might have been obvious from a trumpet or horn, but overall, very well executed, I thought.

The final movement began and our soprano walked out for her spotlight. If anything, the final movement could have benefited from just a pinch more spunk. I get it, maybe you guys are tired, but the finale is the key. This is not a criticism, but I feel it’s hard to overdo the drama and contrast and energy in the final movement. I thought the soprano did a fine job, although it seemed she was gasping for air at a few unmusical spots. There’s something so finally satisfying, after such a (kind of literally) heavenly movement as Das himmlische Leben, for the work to end quietly; the conductor treated this quiet end like it was the ninth of Mahler, a pensive, dramatic silence, hands suspended in air, like he was holding the breaths and heartbeats of the entire audience with one hand before releasing us to breath. Instant applause.

The problem with listening to so many recordings of these monumental symphonies and picking favorites and becoming familiar with these styles is that it is difficult not to compare a live performance against whatever’s your favorite (Bernstein, Boulez, Abbado, whomever), and in some ways, that’s just not fair. Tonight’s performance was not a life-altering, never-again-to-be-attained height of greatness, but it was damn good. I was extremely impressed with the conductor who I’ve never heard of and his treatment of Mahler, and for those friends of mine who’ve never heard Mahler (or anyone else, for that matter) live, it was an excellent first go at a concert, justice more than done to Mahler’s fourth symphony. Despite my initial reservations about the quality of the concert, it was very satisfying, a concert I would have been proud to take almost anyone to and say “this is the Taipei Symphony. An orchestra and a reading of Mahler to be proud of. Thanks for a wonderful night.

The quite excellent readings of Mahler 3 and 4 by the Taipei Symphony make me really interested in the possibility of hearing a TSO Mahler cycle; I’m not sure who it’d be under, because Varga has been at the helm for neither of the Mahler works, but I’d love to see what they could do with the others. I’m hoping to hear more Mahler, TSO! Their program for the next half of the year should be out soon, and I would love to see Mahler 7 or 5 or 1 or Das Lied (or even 10!) on the program. Will it happen? I certainly hope so. See you all next time.




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