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All-Stars: Nelsons, BSO, Gruber, Mahler

The Boston Musical Intelligencer

November 16, 2018

All-Stars: Nelsons, BSO, Gruber, Mahler

by Jeffrey Gantz

Andris Nelsons’s unique instrument was the trumpet (take a look at the story of his current duet with Thomas Rolfs HERE), so it’s not shocking that this weekend’s Austrian program pairs Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the place the primary trumpet annunciates the opening funeral march, with Third Viennese Faculty composer HK Gruber’s 1999 trumpet concerto Aerial. It’s not a brand new coupling: Nelsons led the identical program — and with the identical trumpet soloist, Håkan Hardenberger — with the Berlin Philharmonic in April 2015. As carried out Thursday, it made a robust bid to be the spotlight of the BSO’s season.

Hardenberger in truth commissioned Aerial, and he was in fact the soloist within the premiere, with Neeme Järvi on the 1999 Proms. Gruber himself is just not a trumpeter however a Vienna Boys’ Choir alumnus who took up the double bass and performed within the Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra. He’s greatest recognized for his 1977 “pan-demonium” Frankenstein!!, and he’s as much as comparable hijinks in Aerial, the place he requires the soloist to sing in falsetto and play a trumpet word on the similar time, to take away slides, to make use of a battery of mutes, to modify to a Swedish cowhorn after which to a B-flat piccolo trumpet.

Aerial’s two actions run about 13 minutes every. The primary takes its inspiration from the “Done with the compass — Done with the Chart!” line of Emily Dickinson’s “Wild nights — Wild nights!” The poem is value revisiting:

Wild nights — Wild nights!
Have been I with thee
Wild nights must be
Our luxurious!

Futile — the winds —
To a Coronary heart in port —
Accomplished with the Compass —
Completed with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden —
Ah — the Sea!
May I however moor — tonight —
In thee!

Thursday’s efficiency started with twinkling percussion and flute, as if Emily had certainly finished with compass and chart and located herself in an undiscovered nation. Hardenberger started virtually instantly with what Gruber calls “multiphonics,” and his simultaneous singing and enjoying undermined what he calls the “directionality” of the trumpet. The enjoying took the type of spooky starbursts, slogans from the past. 4 minutes into the piece, the primary mute got here out, and the trumpet sounded mournful and spookier nonetheless. After a pair of tam-tam crashes, Hardenberger’s phrases received longer and bluesier. The cowhorn, which he picked up eight minutes in, was even much less pitched and directional, although the pristine, wind-like sound and chromatic half-steps he drew from it have been fairly superb. He then did some squalling on piccolo trumpet earlier than returning to his common instrument.

The second motion adopted and not using a break. Headed “Gone Dancing,” it evokes the view from a distant planet of our personal Earth as a world with out life. That world did seem abandoned at first, however quickly our view was redirected towards wherever the dancing had gone. Whereas within the first motion Hardenberger appeared to be enjoying towards the orchestra, right here he was swinging with it. After essaying some ditzy and galumphing rhythms, with melodic fragments flying all over the place, the orchestra was able to rumble, and Hardenberger settled right into a groove for Gruber’s model of the music of the spheres. The depth grew; Hardenberger switched again to piccolo trumpet, and at one level we appeared to listen to Petrouchka-like trumpet towards a Sacre-like orchestra. Nonetheless enjoying piccolo trumpet, Hardenberger signaled the top by leaving his place subsequent to Nelsons and strolling upstage proper. Dealing with the piano, together with his again to the viewers, he gave out a remaining bleat, and that was that. Name it “Emily’s Wild Night in Eden, Where She Finally Gets To Dance.”

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony limns a easy development from darkish to mild, starting with a army funeral march, in C-sharp minor, and ending with a rollicking rondo in D main. Alongside the best way we get a stormy revolt, an ebullient if mystifying scherzo, and Mahler’s hottest (definitely his most carried out) composition, the soulful fourth-movement Adagietto. However musicologists, particularly within the wake of Theodor Adorno, proceed to wonder if the symphony’s obvious massive sure (in Nietzschean phrases) isn’t actually an enormous no. (Donald Mitchell’s 125-page essay on the Fifth is titled “Eternity or Nothingness?”) Or a minimum of whether or not the triumph of the Adagietto and Rondo Finale isn’t a hole victory in view of what’s come earlier than. The symphony is definitely an enormous riddle, with clues within the type of allusions to different Mahler works and, prominently within the Adagietto, to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. And that’s even earlier than we get to the donkey apotheosis.

The opening Trauermarsch (“In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt.”) has you off stability from the outset. It begins with the identical B-flat trumpet tattoo that within the first motion of Mahler’s Fourth appeared to be signaling a panic assault — and but it’s in the identical rhythm as the primary 4 notes of one other well-known Fifth, Beethoven’s. The temper, nevertheless, is that of “Der Tambourg’sell,” a Knaben Wunderhorn track a few doomed drummer that Mahler composed across the similar time because the Fifth (1901–1902). Close to the top, proper earlier than the timpani faucet out that trumpet name, Mahler quotes a phrase from the primary of his Kindertotenlieder, “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n,” a phrase to which he set each “als sei kein Unglück die Nacht gescheh’n” (“as if no misfortune had befallen in the night”) and “Heil sei dem Freudenlicht der Welt!” (“Hail to the joyous light of the world!”). Do these strains recommend a ray of hope?

In that case, it’s the one one within the motion. The primary trio (“Plötzlich schneller. Leidenschaftlich. Wild.”) is an indignant, passionate outburst, maybe from family members and associates; the second is resigned. The onlookers’ feelings can’t sluggish the procession; Mahler marks the coda “Streng” (“Strict”). The A-minor second motion (“Stürmisch bewegt. Mit größter Vehemenz.”) brings the actual storm of rebel towards God or destiny. The ascending second theme doesn’t promise a lot, so it’s a shock when an enormous, redemptive  brass chorale materializes on the climax, and a bitter disappointment when that chorale evaporates into skinny air, leaving shards of protest behind.

The Scherzo (“Kräftig, nicht zu schnell”) is the place Mahler begins to unmoor us. We’re in D main now — however isn’t that the important thing through which the symphony goes to finish? What’s it doing already right here within the third motion? Certainly this jolly, strong Ländler can’t be the composer’s final phrase? And the place did it come from? Is it the departed’s flashback to happier days? Or the composer’s try to show his again on the mortality of the primary two actions?

After a bit, a shy metropolis waltz exhibits up, and from then on it’s a must to determine whether or not the town waltz corrupts the nation Ländler or the Ländler introduces the waltz to nation pleasures. What does appear clear is that the obbligato French horn theme is nostalgic in the identical approach the posthorn solo is within the Scherzo of the Mahler Third. It may be the composer’s farewell to the Wunderhorn world of his first 4 symphonies; it could be our sign that the kid of the Fourth Symphony is about to succeed in puberty. No matter, the dizzy dance of waltz and ländler goes on. Mahler at one level referred to as this motion “Die Welt ohne Schwere” (“The World without Gravity”), suggesting lightheartedness or thoughtlessness — or each. Maybe this motion is his huge sure and his massive no. The youthful Mahler’s literary heroes, Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann, would have permitted.

The Adagietto, too, appears to return from nowhere. On this case, the composer turns his again on the bustle and noise of the Scherzo and takes refuge in strings and harp. The opening phrase conjures the second Kindertotenlieder music, “Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen,” however afterward there are unmistakable allusions to the “gaze” motif from Tristan. Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg recalled that each Gustav and Alma had advised him the Adagietto was Mahler’s musical love letter to Alma. There are causes to doubt this story: Alma makes no point out of it in her memoirs, and Mahler, as soon as he had develop into director of the Vienna State Opera, was largely restricted to composing in the summertime. Alma and Gustav began up in November 1901 and have been married in March 1902, so if Mahler wrote the Adagietto throughout their temporary courtship, he should have discovered time through the busy opera season. Nonetheless, Alma, herself a proficient composer, would definitely have acknowledged and understood the Tristan allusion.

An extra complication with this motion is the tempo marking: “Sehr langsam.” The standard sense of “adagietto” is “not quite as slow as adagio,” however how does that sq. with the “very slow” of “Sehr langsam”? No matter, there can hardly be one other piece of classical music that’s seen such a variety of timings. Mengelberg with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 1926 took simply 7:15; Bruno Walter in his 1947 New York Philharmonic recording checked in at 7:37. They have been Mahler’s buddies, so that you’d assume they knew what he needed, however eight minutes for this motion scarcely registers as even sluggish, not to mention very sluggish. These days, timings common 10-11 minutes, however Karajan, Levine, and Abbado have been up round 12 minutes, and Haitink in his 1988 Berlin remake set the present commercial-release report at 13:55. If a conductor can get the motion to sing, time is irrelevant, nevertheless it’s clearly tougher to phrase at a slower tempo.

Hakan Hardenberger final night time at Symphony Corridor (Marco Borggreve photograph)

The Rondo Finale is extra ambivalent nonetheless, if that’s attainable. This one is Mahler’s “Donkey Show,” because it begins by quoting his Wunderhorn track “Lob des hohen Verstandes” (“Praise of Lofty Discrimination”), by which a cuckoo and a nightingale interact in a singing contest, and the donkey decide — chosen by the cuckoo due to his lengthy ears — awards the prize to the cuckoo, whose easier music is simpler to know. (Increase your hand should you assume Mahler had in thoughts the music critics of his day.) Within the midst of the motion’s fugato follies, the Adagietto’s essential theme returns, now sped up and sprightly, virtually a polka. Additionally returning is the chorale from the second motion. This time it’s sustained, to the misery of musicologists who complain that it doesn’t develop out of the musical materials and anyway, a rondo could be a victory lap however it’s not the place you win the race. In a means, this finale can also be Mahler’s little joke, once more within the custom of Jean Paul and Hoffmann: epic as satire. What won’t be in query is the symphony’s conclusion. The Fifth ends with a cathartic descending thump that has steered to some the sound of a composer booting a reviewer down a flight of stairs.

Nelsons’s Symphony Corridor interpretation Thursday, just like the one he gave within the Berlin Philharmonie, was a determined sure. At 73 minutes, it was barely extra compact than the Berlin efficiency, and all the higher for that, although 73 minutes is extra expansive than common for the Fifth. Expansiveness is an enormous a part of what I like about Nelsons’s Mahler (and, for that matter, his Shostakovich). It’s a crystalline, chamber-like expansiveness; you get to listen to the innumerable particulars of Mahler’s rating — which is particularly gratifying when the rating is being performed by the BSO. It’s virtually by no means sluggish or soupy. And since Nelsons makes the large gestures and provides the music the ebb and move that Mahler’s hypermarked scores demand, his studying coheres and has form.

Thursday began with a customized tattoo from principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs — I’ve by no means heard the Fifth’s opening fanfare sound so un-rote. That was a harbinger of the delights to return. The French horns have been flavorful (rustic however not uncooked); the strings have been delicate and expressive. The march itself had extra ahead movement than it did in Berlin (the place there was a touch of sentiment); the primary trio exploded, because it ought to, and right here the trumpets have been slicing however nonetheless noble. Timothy Genis’s timpani tattoo was stark and nicely judged; Nelsons’s coda might have provided a smidgen of respiration room (consider how Tennstedt would conclude this motion), however it’s arduous to criticize a conductor for abiding by Mahler’s “Streng” instruction.

Nelson’s second motion lacks the “Vehemenz” of some interpreters. Thursday’s studying was stormy quite than frenzied — nevertheless it’s the frenzied readings that are likely to clot. Right here the trombones and tuba have been black with rage and despair, and within the rising, consolatory second theme, the cellos re-created, as Mahler asks, the calm tempo of the Trauermarsch. Instead of hysteria we obtained drama. Hysteria isn’t essentially dangerous, however on this motion it’s arduous to have each.

The Scherzo was afforded room to bop — which isn’t all the time the case. Nelsons allowed each ländler and waltz to swing (typically collectively); the waltz, on its first look, was extraordinarily shy. As soon as James Sommerville’s French horn had resurrected that world of misplaced innocence, the primary violins took up the thought (“Fließender, aber immer gemäßigt”) with heartbreaking sweetness. Some students see this horn theme as a premonition of dying (because the posthorn is within the Third), however Nelsons handled it as Mahler’s wistful adieu to his childhood. (After Vienna, what innocence?) Nelsons’s peroration, through which all of the motion’s themes assemble, was a celebration, for higher and worse, of what Mahler’s life had grow to be by 1901.

And but Nelsons’s Adagietto, at a average 10 minutes, discovered one other dimension to that life. Conductors so typically appear mesmerized by this motion; your selection is monochromatic dirge or monochromatic serenade. However Mahler provides new directions each few bars, and Nelsons caught the rise and fall of the writing, the swell, the calm. Add within the imaginative phrasing of Jessica Zhou’s harp and the music bobbed like a Venetian gondola. It turned a motion the place Gustav leaves Vienna behind, the place he and Alma have, because the “gaze” motif suggests, eyes just for one another.

As for the cheeky, teasing Rondo Finale, it was no hole victory however a triumphant return to innocence of a kind. The cuckoo began it off, in an opulent descending fourth from solo French horn; then the donkey bray was unmistakable. (In actual life, and in Beethoven’s Pastorale, European cuckoos name a descending main third, however Mahler’s cuckoos typically name a descending fourth, as originally of his First Symphony, the place they’re the great guys.) The return of Adagietto theme was lightfooted and carefree, and Nelsons handled every part with such tenderness and good humor, you might think about Alma and Gustav as adoring mother and father, with cuckoo, donkey, and nightingale as their future daughters’ stuffed toys come to life. The chorale emerged not from the thematic materials of the motion however from its joyous temper, from the sheer exuberance of the writing. The Rondo Finale has a status for being the worst of Mahler’s finales; right here it seemed like the perfect.    

Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, artwork, movie, and books for the previous 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and at present for the Boston Globe.

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