featuring Lan Shui and Charlotte Hellekant
O Mensch! Gib acht!
Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?
Mahler, oh Mahler.
His symphonies really are worlds, are they not? Tonight we got to hear, down in Taichung (台中) the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra’s next installment of their Mahler cycle. After their astounding, fantastic eighth, I wasn’t going to miss another opportunity to hear Lan Shui lead another Mahler symphony.
It’s a big one, the biggest in what’s considered the ‘standard’ repertoire, dwarfing the Bruckner symphonies (usually), and excluding the much rarer works like Havergal Brian’s truly gargantuan ‘Gothic’ first symphony. The concert today got underway a little after 19:30, probably with a downbeat by 19:35, and wasn’t finished until 21:15 or thereabouts.
And we don’t have time here, especially since I just got home at this late hour, to discuss the real intricacies of the work itself. Six movements, the first of which is easily over a half hour long… there’s a lot to talk about.
I’ll say that I’m not the only one who wishes for a bit more openness and volume in the acoustics of the new opera house, but it seems maybe to have improved some, or else the orchestras have adapted to its specific personality. In any case, the majestic, rawly powerful opening of the horns that announce the beginning of this craggy, almost primeval first movement did not burn my eyebrows off like one expects them to, especially sitting as close as I was.
The opening was heavy, dark, intense, with very pregnant pauses and incredibly weighty phrasing, the kind of heft that would rattle your glass windows to shards across the floor. For his small stature, Lan Shui certainly carries a big stick, and works with the orchestra in a way that makes me forget he isn’t their actual music director.
By contrast, the second subject was fleet and lively, almost too brisk in places, but this made for stark contrast that at times seemed almost to threaten the continuity of this massive movement. However, it stuck together, and the result was a very propulsive first movement that revealed that it wasn’t aiming to blow your socks off right from the get-go, but grow as the piece went on, so that in all the right places, conductor and orchestra really blew the lid off the place rather than indulge in every chance to give a ff.
The second and third movements were very quick, brisker than I’ve ever heard them, and I can’t say I’m used to it, and would maybe have preferred a little more time to savor the detail of a chirp from the woodwinds or trill in the violins, but they were well played. The third movement, with the post horn and French horns and all the rest was nothing short of heavenly. The post horn played offstage, hit every high note with seemingly effortless finesse, even down to the quietest passages, blending with the horns, all the way through to the death shriek that, for me, marks the turning point of the symphony.
The second and third movements are so much lighter than the fourth, which begins with a mezzo-soprano singing the lines that begin this article, from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. It casts a dark cloud over the symphony with its warning message, when in reality the storm had already broken out with the end of the third movement. We’ve heard Hellekant before, in the NTSO’s reading of Mahler’s second and eighth, and I’ll say that I have always wanted to like her, but have also always wanted just a little bit more power and clarity from her. Granted, Mahler 2 and 8 are big, demanding, heavy pieces, but still.
Tonight, though, in the third, she was very good. She walked out very gracefully for the beginning of the fourth movement, one which places fewer demands on the vocalist than Mahler’s other symphonic parts. Hellekant sounded warm and full, restrained when needed, but expressive. She carried her part out in a black binder which she only opened to look at occasionally, which gave the feeling of someone indecisive about which bottle of wine they should order it. Look at your score in hand from beginning to end, and it’s a somber and serious as if you’re reading scripture; or just don’t look at it at all. Don’t glance.
She did more than justice to the fourth movement, and by the ‘bim-bam’ of the fifth, we got almost blinding, shimmering brightness. The choirs, at the very back, behind percussion, were absolutely angelic, full and expressive and just outstanding. Hellekant also performed well with the larger forces behind her. This shortest movement is quickly over, though, and she walks off, leaving her vocal brethren behind for the long, slow climb of the final movement that left me in tears.
I mentioned windows in describing the first movement because if the first movement could shatter glass with its guttural, primeval rumble and unstoppable force, the transcendental reading of the final movement would just melt it all until it lay in a puddle where a window used to be. It’s a slow climb, strings only at first, but it’s a testament to Mahler’s composition and the conductor’s interpretation that after more than an hour of very expressive, very intense music, there’s still room for a climax, to cap it all off in a way that’s related and logical but not redundant.
The finale in Lan Shui’s hands, and with this spectacular sounding orchestra, was just sublime. I can’t give it a single criticism, of pacing, tempo, dynamics, phrasing, anything. I wept. I think Mahler is one of the few conductors who could write a symphony of over an hour and still weave a grand, heavenly, time-stopping climax like that. If the adagio finale to his ninth is what sucks the air out of the room and leaves our souls suffocating in the most beautifully morbid, hopeless way possible, then this finale is the exact opposite of that. It’s equally expressive and life-changing, even spiritual, but in the most positive, uplifting way imaginable. I hadn’t ever thought of the finale of the third as being that deeply significant, that paralyzingly beautiful, but I found myself thinking tonight with Lan Shui at the helm that this finale is one of the greatest things Mahler ever wrote, up there with the grandness and magnificence of 2 or 8.
So that’s it. I could go on for another 1,000 words about how unique and different but truly, deeply, movingly satisfying this reading was, but overall, the orchestra was in absolute top form, like internationally world-class good, for the most part. Soloists were superb, from the demanding trombone solo, the post horn, French horn, on and on. Even into the later movements, when fatigue is a real consideration, everyone played so well; Lan Shui has a rapport with them that makes me wish he would come here to stay.
Tonight, I think, is the (almost) last installment of their Mahler cycle they’ve been working on the past few years. I think they did 6 a few years ago, and I didn’t go to their 5 or 9, but in the past year or two I’ve heard their 1, 2, 3, 7, 8 and Das Lied. The only one they haven’t yet played, and the only one I have yet to hear live, is the exceedingly rare tenth, but I have heard whispers that it might be on the program next year (’18-’19). They way they’ve been performing this past year, I certainly hope so.
Well, that’s all for now. It’s late, and I keep thinking I can sleep in tomorrow (actually today already), but it’s only Tuesday. But how worth it, to hear such exceptional Mahler. My concertgoing companion for the evening was, as usual, far more critical than I was willing to be because, while it may not be exactly like the recording(s) I know and love, it was still a beyond-convincing interpretation well worth experiencing live, and that finale… one of the greatest musical things I’ve witnessed. Hope to see you all again very soon.