Mahler 4 & 5

The Mahler cycle continues tonight, with Boulez leading the Sixth. Yesterday was a refreshing break, after concerts of the 4th and 5th symphonies over the weekend. Saturday night it was Boulez leading selections from the Wunderhorn songs and the 4th, with Dorothea Roschmann back singing. The songs were nicely done, but I find excerpts from that work far less compelling than the thing as a whole – there is a lot more charm there than a handful of selections can convey. The 4th symphony has a surfeit of charm, and as the most compact and immediately pretty of the composer’s works, it’s quite popular. I found it increasingly strange, however. Sleighbells! Country fiddle! A song about, literally, a heavenly feast! This is Mahler consolidating his skills and leaving himself to private pleasures, I think. The emotional content is non-narrative and hermetic, the composer’s thoughts to himself. It’s lovely, inventive music, it always sounds unexpected, yet I cannot think of a way that the individual movements fit together in terms of meaning. It is less clear each time, which says a lot about how I listen and think. The performance was relaxed, the slow movement properly rapturous, and Roschmann was excellent in the finale, singing with the appropriate child-like unselfconsciousness.

The Mahler 5th Symphony Sunday afternoon, preceded by Thomas Quasthoff’s excellent performance of the Ruckert Lieder, was one of the great concert-going experiences of my life. I have never heard this work conveyed with such a sense of ultimate possibilities – it was not merely the greatest performance I’ve heard, it was the greatest I can imagine. The orchestra played with utter physical and emotional commitment and concentration, but credit must go to Barenboim. His focus, decisions, control and taste were astonishing. Not only was each tempo perfect, but each modulation and shade of dynamic was perfect for the moment. He conveyed all the luster, dignity, poise, joy, fire, rage and violence by drawing exquisitely fine contrasts between all these states, which meant he never needed to indulge in any one to make a point. His take on the famous Adagietto was extraordinarily thoughtful and imaginative – this has taken on the guise of funeral music in contemporary, which it is not, and is often played at a dirge-like tempo. There is some confusion that Mahler created, by marking both adagietto (a little slow) and Sehr langsam (very slow). Conductors primarily choose the latter. Barenboim began with a marvelous, lithe fade-in from absolute silence, then carried the music along at a true adagietto, relaxed but flowing. It was only at the coda, with a reprise of the opening material, the he slowed the tempo. Simple, brilliant, powerful. He also shaded the relentless major keys of the finale with enough dynamics and color to keep the tension alive, and so the glorious climax was especially rewarding and moving, and all without have to press for more volume or less speed. An enthralling performance, exciting in it’s sheer incredible skill and artistry, that I wished would not end and that I still carry with me. Bravissimo, maestro.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.