TSO’s Mahler 7

As described in passing in a recent article on musical programming, I’ve had a pretty good run of hearing the Beethoven symphonies performed live by some wonderful orchestras. That perhaps isn’t a surprise. Beethoven’s symphony cycle is one of the greatest in history.

My experience with the Mahler symphonies live, while not as star-studded, has still been quite good. Highlights include stunning performances of six and nine with our local NSO (I missed their fourth), as well as an epic third with our Taipei symphony under Eliahu Inbal, and the Chicago Symphony’s reading of the first.

As for live listenings, there are only a few of Mahler’s yet to be checked off the list, and tonight another one was. Mahler’s seventh is perhaps the blackest sheep of his output. It’s understandable that works like the second and third, as well as the gargantuan eighth, would be performed far less than their purely-symphonic counterparts, but even the symphonies without vocals are enormous works. Performing forces and logistics aside (and not including the indecision around how much of Mahler’s tenth is fit for performance, and in which version), his seventh might be his least-performed symphony.

Except for this past week, of course, seeing as the Berlin Philharmonic performed it for their season opener, and then again at the BBC Proms, paired with Boulez’s Eclat. While we in Taipei didn’t get the shimmering chamber work from the late French master, we did get the Mahler, conducted by Stefan Soltesz. It was paired with Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder  before the break, sung by Michaela Selinger.

Wagner is a composer of whom I am largely ignorant, to be honest. For all the influence he had on composers and music that I have come to love, I find much of his music rather inaccessible, not because it’s difficult (anymore) or unappealing, but because it’s so monstrous.

Mahler wrote monstrous symphonies, as we shall soon discuss, but Wagner is different. He wrote only one rather uncelebrated symphony, a work which is relegated to practically complete insignificance when compared with what he did for opera, but that’s the problem. I don’t speak German, and I don’t usually have time to sit down for two to five hours to focus on an opera of such magnitude. Granted, this is true for moe than just Wagner. People like Verdi also made their names more in the opera house than the concert hall, but that’s for another time.

Tonight’s work was a good chance to enjoy a piece that reflects more of what the composer is famous for, and it’s surprising he didn’t write more lieder. Wesendonck Lieder is a piece of music I’m also entirely unfamiliar with, despite it being one of Wagner’s most-performed non-opera compositions.

Michaela Selinger seemd to have been unable not to change personas with each song, like there were five costumes on and a new one was revealed for each song. In many cases, a concert hall (especially a better one than Zhong Shan Hall), a solid, beefy piece fills all the empty space, so that each corner and ear and crack of the hall is filled with music, but at least for the first song, it was the opposite, as if the hall had been shrunken down to allow all the quiet textures and sound to be heard. Of course, Wagner wrote his Lieder for piano, so the orchestration isn’t of his hand, but the first song was subtle, almost subdued, coming to life throughout the subsequent songs. Selinger was charismatic, elegant, and focused, and it wasn’t until the encore that I realized something.

After a few returns for applause, she and Soltesz came back for an encore, Cherubino’s Voi che sapete from Mozart’s Figaro. How can’t it bring a smile to the face, especially when performed as it was this evening? The instant realization was that for Wesendonck Lider, Selinger served the music. It was more a sacred, serious effort, still with its lighter, more delicate moments, like solos from violin or cello, but as a performer, it was about the music. As Cherubino, however, it was about Cherubino, an aria that allows for love and passion and apprehension and all those bottled-up emotions, but also just a lot of fun, and I think it was a hall full of smiles, an outstanding way to round out the first half of the program, but leaving me thinking… it’s quite a long way to come for a half hour of performing. Brava.

After a quick intermission, I moved from my seat on the sixth row up to the second floor, where I’d never been before (in that hall), to see where a friend was sitting and chat a bit. Turns out it’s rather large up there, and the acoustics are very different. Also turns out there was an empty seat next to her, so I got a second-floor view of Mahler’s seventh, could see the bells of percussion and clarinets and horns, the entire affair.

I really do very much enjoy the Taipei Symphony, I really do. As I’ve stated before, they’ve given us outstanding readings of a wide range of pieces, Mahler included, both three and four. Tonight’s performance was not their best, though. It was a bit rough around the edges, maybe over-rehearsed. I still enjoyed it, no doubt, and was thrilled to mark Lied der Nacht off my list of live performances, but it had its rough patches, mostly from brass (and more specifically trumpets).

I know nothing of Soltesz except for some of the names he studied under, and I’ve never heard his Mahler. I’ll also say that some of the Mahler conductors I really like have some strange approaches to no. 7. The first movement was not encouraging, to be honest. The phrasing was choppy and overall didn’t feel fluid; the sound (which I thought might just be the hall’s fault) also didn’t feel terribly full. The tenor horn also appeared not to be a tenor horn, but I hear that happens here and there.

With the beginning of the second movement, it was as if a veil had been lifted. The orchestra was more unified, the phrasing cleaner, swifter, fuller, more fluid. There were still some patchy spots here and there, but it felt overall 100% more inspired. The other veil that was lifted was on the Nacht part of Nachtmusik. It was the brightest Nachtmusik I’ve ever heard, leaning far more toward the serenade end of the spectrum than the nocturne  end. It was still beautiful music, but only at certain passages did it get dark.

We didn’t really plumb any depths in the first two movements, although the second movement was delicate and sweet if not a bit too bright. It darkened a bit toward the end for the scherzo, the central focus of the piece, and I feel it’s here where the entire performance really got to somewhere special. It was struck at a tempo that was brisk but not fast, and felt and sounded like the dark, menacing, almost sickened clockwork that it should. It was by far the best movement of the performance.

The second Nachtmusik was better than the first, and guitar and mandolin fluttered throughout the movement, a Nacht that is just nearing sunrise and the final movement, which is the incongruous enigma of the symphony for most people. It turned out to be where the orchestra and conductor may have felt the most at ease, the most inspired, and I’d say overall, intentionally or not, what was accented in this performance was not as much the darkness and passion and depth of the work as much as its quirks and incongruities. That’s not a criticism, because the work is full of contrast and interesting qualities, and it was interesting to hear that way.

I love Boulez’s Mahler cycle, save the seventh. There’s an argument that it may be the most true to the score, but it’s not at all to my taste. He has the advantage of having the world-famous Cleveland Orchestra under his baton, but tonight’s reading was affected by some shaky playing here and there, and an interpretation that, while giving a pretty comprehensible reading, was a bit cheery for my taste. I can’t quite put my finger on what was going on with the phrasing and contours and who was behind those decisions, if they were decisions.

Criticisms aside, there were shining moments of the Mahler, and the scherzo and finale were the highlights. If the Nachtmusik movements had been imbued with a bit more darkness, if that had sunk a little deeper, the contrast between it and the rambunctious, incongruously celebratory finale would have made for a much stronger reading.

In any case, that’s Mahler’s seventh off the list, and only a few more to go: 8, the completed tenth, and Das Lied. One of those is on the roster in the coming months, which is very exciting, so stay tuned for more of that.

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