NSO’s Titan Arise

Mahler, Mahler, Mahler!

Performances of Mahler symphonies aren’t rare, nowadays, by any stretch of the imagination, but locally, in one area, it may not be so often to be able to walk in on a performance of such a mammoth work as Mahler’s second or third symphonies. Sure, they’re in the rotation, but it may be a few years before it comes around again.

However, there is an interesting coincidence of concerts this weekend. As per yesterday’s post, I found myself down in Taichung yet again, but this time in a different hall, for a performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, the symphony that isn’t a symphony, a culmination, an amalgamation of everything Mahler had done in his career up to that point, and a threshold, a stepping stone to his last two works, the ninth and tenth symphonies.

In both correlation and contrast with Das Lied, we had our local NSO performing Mahler’s first symphony tonight, under the baton of Maestro Gunther Herbig. As you know (or can see), yesterday’s Das Lied was preceded by the rarely-performed and rightly excised  Blumine movement, from the earliest form in which Mahler’s first symphony existed. Quite interesting to hear this removed movement the night before the first, and then in stark contrast with the mature, weathered composer, tonight his first symphony.

But there was plenty before that. First on the program were Weber’s Abu Hassan overture, a little appetizer of a piece with that punchy, bright overture energy, as well as a happy helping of that 18th century version of ‘Turkish’ music. It was a crisp, lively, exciting amuse-bouche, a nice way to start the concert in a nearly-full concert hall, largely thanks to Herbig’s name on the ticket.

After that came Mozart’s concerto for flute and harp in C. Mind you, the orchestral forces for Weber were the typical ranks for the era, but after some shuffling for the soloists in the Mozart, we’d lost almost all the winds, resulting in quite a bit of empty space on stage. Not to worry, though, Mahler is coming.

The Mozart was played no less than absolutely exactly the way you want to hear Mozart. It was light on its feet, crystal clear, supple, neither dry nor over-romanticized, Herbig led his little orchestral ship with poise and grace for the three movements of a piece that’s longer than I recall.

But none of that is the main point. The main point is the soloists, who were superb. I’ve had occasion to meet and speak with Mr. Norell, NSO’s principal flute, and he’s a very friendly gentleman. We spoke back in September, when I happened to be doing my Swedish series, so I was especially read-up on my Swedish composers. In any case, he’s been with our NSO for twenty years, and it was wonderful to see him in a solo role. I cannot play the flute, but I have played the flute, if that makes sense, and I’ve heard many very dedicated non-professionals play the flute, and it seems to me to be rather a finicky instrument, even outside a solo role, perhaps, but tonight’s performance was absolutely exquisite. We had Shannon Chieh (解瑄) on the harp, which I feel is one of those magical yet oft-misunderstood instruments, and it’s used in the concerto as a soloist, not the special effect whoosh moment it gets in a ballet or opera here or there. The two soloists played beautifully, effortlessly, shimmering and glistening, in perfect step with each other and the orchestra. It’s a work of Mozart that presents no struggle, no tragedy, an exercise in pure virtuosic beauty. And there was much applause.

And there was the intermission.

And then there were many more seats. After Weber and Mozart, the setup for Mahler looked like a veritable sea of chairs and music stands. So as I referenced earlier, I heard Blumine just yesterday and while I don’t think it should be in Mahler’s first symphonic effort, I heard the first in a different light tonight, for a number of reasons.

It’s been (terrifyingly) almost a year since the Chicago Symphony was here and gave us two outstanding evenings of programs (far more respectable than another ensemble who’ll be making their appearance here in a few weeks), and Muti gave us his Mahler 1. While the Chicago Symphony is the stinking Chicago Symphony, and to hear them play Mahler is an opportunity to be treasured, I’d argue that Herbig’s Mahler blew Muti’s out of the water.

It’s not a matter of technical prowess; Chicago has that in spades, and the conductor doesn’t play anything anyway. But his treatment of Mahler’s earliest and arguably weakest symphony was, for lack of a better description, as if performed in Hi-Def. It was as if all the qualities you’d doctor for a photo (saturation, contrast, etc.) were all hiked up to the maximum acceptable levels, without getting blatty and untoward like Bernstein. Nothing was overdone, but the crispness of contrasts, of color, of expression, down to the minutest of detail, seemed exquisitely fine-tuned.

Granted, there were a few misses from the woodwinds waking up from out of the bowed mists of the beginning, but interpretively, overall, as a long, well-constructed arch of a piece, Herbig hit the bullseye everywhere: the Ländler was bright and lively and a bit raucous but elegant, the tempo of the third movement was right down the middle, maybe a tiny bit on the brisk side, but the bassist nailed the ‘play like a child’ idea for the solo at the beginning. By the time we reached the finale, everything had built such momentum, and even some of what I feel to be a few of the more awkward spots in the symphony were elegantly navigated. By the time the horns stood up at the very end of the finale, I had already mostly melted in my chair. The finale was played with fire and drive, but also sensibility, calling back those moments from the first movement, even from Blumine (serendipitously the night before), and outlining clearly the form and shape of the piece not just in the moment, but overall, never getting too buried in what’s going on now that the overall picture gets lost. A handsome, ravishing, chest-pounding Mahler 1, that made me hear not just the most youthful Mahler there ever was, but also showed glimpses of the late Mahler’s sound.

What a treat to have back-to-back Mahler concerts in one weekend, and especially of such quality. While I’m not entirely sure what the correlation was between the two halves of tonight’s program, they certainly presented a contrast: beautiful, light, delicate sweet angelic melodies from Mozart via a flute and a harp, and Mahler’s vibrant first symphony. I can’t wait for more.

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2 thoughts on “NSO’s Titan Arise

    1. Well, his stuff is enormous… as a primer for his works, I’d maybe start with his song cycles, either Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen or Rückertlieder, both of which featured here. Symphonically, they’re all big, but the first movement of no. 3 or for a full work, maybe the fourth or fifth, I think, are good places to start, but I love it all. I strongly advise against Bernstein’s Mahler. Stick with Abbado to start.

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