Bayerisches Staatsorchester in Taipei

featuring Igor Levit

“If you’re ever in that part of town, you should try…”

It’s a small world, but it isn’t that small. You probably won’t accidentally find yourself in Taipei anytime soon, but if you were to, you might learn that we have, as I have said many times before, a superbly fecund local music scene, and the chance to hear the world’s best orchestras when they come and visit. Tonight was no exception.

I got my ticket for tonight’s concert much farther in advance than usual, so it sat on my shelf in a fancy envelope inside another envelope with a label on it, waiting for September 9. The Bavarian State Orchestra would be coming to my town to play Mahler 5, and they were bringing with them Igor Levit, a magically talented pianist whose name has been just about everywhere lately. Kirill Petrenko, soon to take the stage as official music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, led a superb evening.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say that there are two nights this round, and I won’t be going to both, but the second night will be made up of Beethoven’s third (wonderful) piano concerto and then Beethoven’s seventh symphony. That concert is (obviously) referred to as ‘The Beethoven Evening’, while tonight’s even with Rachmaninoff on the program, was called ‘The Mahler Evening.’

I found my pretty great seat, front row of upstairs balcony, much more steeply priced than usual, which is usual for The Much More Expensive Ticketing Agency, but I was pleased to have gotten the seat I wanted despite the antiquated booking system. And I look to my left, across the aisle, and whose familiar face do I see but one of the principals of our local orchestra? That was a very nice surprise, especially on one of the nights I’m flying alone. We had nice chats, and the lights dimmed about five minutes later than they should have.

Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations begins much more in medias res than I remembered, and I felt a little bit “Wait, hold on a minute!” as the downbeat came, as if I’d turned on a broadcast that had already started. To be honest, the Rachmaninoff on the program tonight isn’t a work I’d put on very often, and I can’t remember the last time I listened to it. I have a sentimental connection to the second and third piano concertos, but this work not as much. Levit played with far more than just poise or finesse; he was effortless and elegant. Petrenko led the orchestra with precision and passion, and the whole thing rolled out before us in all its Romantic glory, with its crunch and bite, the composer’s penchant for working a Dies Irae quote into just about everything, that swooning famous inversion of the theme with no. 18, all of it coming together to create a reading of the piece that would surely have made the composer proud. Levit’s composure and clarity were really remarkable in such a subtle way, and I’d actually far prefer to hear him play the Beethoven concerto, but they played the hell out of Rachmaninoff.

As an encore, he played Beethoven’s (in)famous für Elise bagatelle, a piece which has a special connotation here in Taiwan.

Intermission and potty break, and then we get what I really came here for, Mahler’s fifth. I knew it was to be a stunning addition to my live Mahler collection, which will be (gosh darn nearly) completed in just a week from now (I’m so excited; stay tuned for that review). I’ve been able to hear the Chicago Symphony play the first, Eliahu Inbal conduct the third, the Bavarian Radio Symphony do the ninth, and to add the BSO and Petrenko to that list with the fifth I knew would be special.

And was it ever.

What are the things that you think of when you think about the fifth?

Well, there’s obviously the trumpet solo at the beginning, and really at key points throughout the entire work. There’s stunning horn writing for both the section and solos. There’s the famous fourth movement adagietto, with the harp and no winds to speak of, and the very interesting five-movement form of the work as a whole. We could go on.

But really, just about everything about the performance tonight accentuated those strengths, the unique characteristics of the work. We saw in Rachmaninoff how Petrenko could be precise and in control without squashing the spirit of the music, and Mahler demands it even more, a firm hold on the reins without being oppressive.

The first movement came off rather slow in portions, not distastefully so, but noticeably. It was intense, and dark, and menacing, a reminder of the new period in the composer’s out put. The trumpet soloist’s sound was crystal clear, powerful, heralding the arrival of the Trauermarsch, and announcing the beginning of what would prove to be an exhilarating reading. The first movement ended with the heart-piercing pluck of strings, and so far I am pleased.

With no more than a half a second to appreciate the first movement, the second engulfs us, and I realized in that instant that the first movement was played as perhaps it should always be played: as a prologue of sorts, as if it was just the introductory chapter, and that now with the bite and fire of the second movement of the five, have things really began to get underway. The pace was brisk in Petrenko’s reading, but not without weight, white hot and growling. It was a reminder that while you may have favorite recordings, there can still be moments of epiphany with the most familiar of pieces in a good interpretation. The moment with just the cellos before the violin solo was absolutely a moment of pure, crystalline, heavenly bliss.

After a similar quiet plucking, coming after one of the greatest, most triumphant, brassy swells in all of music, there was a long pause, not for flipping of pages, not for coughing, but a purposeful pause, and one remembers that that was part one of three in this work, the third movement being part two.

After that purposeful pause, we got a quick tuning, and the scherzo was underway. That pause, and the deliberate organizing of this five-movement work into two parts, may seem arbitrary, but it divided the work into two connected but independent arcs, if you will. The scherzo is bucolic and widely varied in its textures, with the stillness of the pizzicato passages contrasting with the horn calls and everything else happening in the movement. Again, obviously, stunningly played, with a final gesture that makes restraining your applause very difficult.

After this was an even longer pause, seemingly, as Petrenko took a small breather before the adagietto, again observing its beginning of part three. This moment of silence was at least a minute long, maybe 90 seconds, give or take, before the slow movement began, at 21:24 pm. I was very curious to see how brisk or deliberate they would play this movement, so I made a note of the time, and from the first notes of the harp, I was pleased. Zubin Mehta (in his superb recording with the NY Phil), Boulez, and Gatti (with the Royal Philharmonic) take this movement in about ten-ish minutes. Levine (with Philly) and Tennstedt do it in around 12; Abbado hovers between 8:30 and 9, and the really remarkably good recording from Barshai and the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie does it in 8:16.

Petrenko took it in under nine minutes, which I’m very pleased with. It’s one of those things. Some people love the much broader tempi, but it’s not a funeral piece. This isn’t Barber’s adagio or anything. It’s a love piece, and it was one of the first times I felt that the energy of the piece hadn’t cooled off or gone somewhere for a breather to rejoin us in the finale. The intensity was maintained throughout, even through the long pause, giving a very amorous, passionate sound to the movement, one of freeness, even maybe a bit lusty, but not gratuitous or untrue to the spirit of the work. (I spoke with a member of the orchestra who expressed a preference for a slightly more deliberate reading, to let the movement breathe just a bit more, and accentuate perhaps the more tragic aspects of Mahler’s love life with Alma).

And then the finale without a break. We have then an issue of wrapping things up in a satisfying manner. The rondo finale lends itself to this, with its multiple themes and plentiful contrapuntal textures. It was at once free and alive, and yet controlled and focused. I marveled at the endurance of the entire brass section, but the principal horn in particular, who played both Rachmaninoff and Mahler, and seemed to play all the Mahler, and effortlessly, mind you. The finale was pure frisson, with stark contrasts, brisk tempi, plenty of weight, and an absolutely sublime conclusion.

There was a sense of wildness to the performance that I don’t think you can get in a recording. Mehta’s recording with the NY Phil is as good as it gets, in my book, but there’s something about the spontaneity of a live performance as inspired as this one, where anything could happen, and even though you know the piece, you feel at times like you still don’t know what to expect. Just superb. The Berlin Phil is in excellent hands.

So that’s that. My goodness was it amazing. The fifth isn’t a symphony that moves me to tears like the second, or third, or eighth, or ninth, or Das Lied. Rather, it’s a hard-edged powerful, symphony, beginning with a funeral march in C#m (that sounds awfully like Mendelssohn’s wedding march), but then…. it’s not without its soft, heavenly moments. It’s a work that has it all, and the BSO gave it their all. Bravo.

There’s much more marvelous music coming up in the next few weeks, so please do stay tuned, and thank you for reading.

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