Last night’s sequential Mahler cycle started not only with the Symphony No. 1 but with his Kindertotenlieder, sung by Thomas Quasthoff. It was surprisingly flat — Quasthoff sang with surprising emphasis and vehemence, which I think is a wrong choice in this music, which is best performed with understatement. The poetry itself only refers to the tragedies through allusion and metaphor, and the work is about bearing the unbearable by circumscribing it. Also, singer and conductor did not always seem to agree on how things should go.
The orchestra played beautifully. This is a very special ensemble, with what the imagination says is a classic mittle-European sound; throaty winds, brass fresh off the parade ground, dark horn tone, woody string sound. There’s not many ensembles like this left, if any, after the long process of homogenization of orchestral sound that recordings have wrought. It’s not just their sound, they play with great skill and expression, and can get nice and loud!
The First Symphony was excellent. In the program notes, Barenboim writes about the lost art of portamento and how essential it is to Mahler. It’s an important detail in his straightforward approach — he applied it dramatically in the Trio section of the second movement and all of a sudden the music made sense in a new way, as both a mockery and embrace of the classic Viennese waltz. That’s Mahler, cruel and loving at the same time. The bass solo opening the third movement as as good as can be, and the finale was played with both great power and control. Extremely long ovation, and deserved.
Tonight, the Second “Resurrection” Symphony, conducted by Boulez.