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Ionarts-at-Large: Chailly's Bold Mahler with the BRSO

Spheres of Gustav Mahler, traced in the future—well after his death—rather than in or before Mahler’s time: that’s the style of several of the great Mahler-conductors of our time, conductors that (audibly) approach the composer as the seed of all or at least much of the music that came after him. They hear the dense chords in Mahler’s Ninth and Tenth Symphonies as the organic development of what Schoenberg & Co. would soon after construct as 12-tone music. Riccardo Chailly is among these conductors, as are Michael Gielen, Simon Rattle, or even Claudio Abbado. On CD you can usually tell by the conductor’s coupling of a modern work with their Mahler. Chailly’s and Gielen’s Mahler cycles on individual discs (but sadly not in their respective, paired down boxes) are made so much more interesting by inclusion of works like Berg’s Sonata Op.1 (orchestrated) or Seven Early Songs, Schoenberg’s Jakob’s Ladder, Webern’s Six Pieces with Schubert, or Zemlinsky’s Maeterlinck-Lieder.

available at AmazonG.Mahler / A.Berg, Symphony No.1 / Sonata op.1 (orch.),
Chailly / RCO
available at AmazonL.Berio, Formazioni, Folk Songs, Sinfonia,
Chailly / RCO
available at AmazonL.Berio, Sinfonia, Eindrücke,
Boulez / O.Natl.d.France
Erato - Apex
The same is true for the concert-experience. You can, of course, stuff a Mahler program with Verdi, or Mozart, but with Riccardo Chailly—in this case at the Herkulessaal with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, October 14th—you get Luciano Berio, instead. Sinfonia, to be precise, which is the logical choice in that it treats Berio not just as part of the non-linear extension of Mahler’s soundworld, but because Berio explicitly references Mahler in this 1968/69 work. It has Mahler at heart with its central movement being a collage of the Second Symphony’s “St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish”. It sounds like a full stomach of Mahler on a roller coaster: clarinet melodies and rhythm being the most striking reminder of Gustav, above which the fragmented rest is being given a liberal make-over with generous splashes of Strauss, Schoenberg, Bach, Debussy, and the incantations of the vocal ensemble’s chatter, cackle, and exclamations. The part was originally written for the Swingle Singers; the Vokalensemble Nova took good, robust care of it here—allowing, or encouraging, or at least (and certainly) surviving a much more aggressive, bold interpretation compared to the more effeminate performance I know from the Swingle-Singers recording(s).

Mahler’s First Symphony, in such short succession to the performance across town, afforded inevitable, direct comparison to Zubin Mehta and the Munich Philharmonic. It is an interesting comparison, too, because where Mehta seems to get interpretatively mellower with age, Chailly gets more audacious and harder—at least in Mahler. Where Mehta’s pseudo-Titan, despite several endearing qualities, was just ‘nice’, Chailly wielded a surprising iron fist.

The opening—the famous Rheingoldian, and Beethoven Ninth-ish Ur­-sound (“A” throughout the entire register of the orchestra)—was held in the must hushed tones, forever clinging to pianissimo with fascinating, compelling tenacity. Even the second theme remained moored in the domain of chamber music-like delicacy. With the ever present prospect of a rip-roaring explosion looming (and without ever calling on it), he made for one of those lapel-grabbing stretches of time where will-power seems to manifest itself in music. He steered the orchestra through the first movement like walking a dog on a rubber band, rubato-wise.

Briefly switching metaphors: So far, Chailly had let the whole thing roll downhill in neutral, not stepping on the accelerator yet, much less putting the pedal to the metal. Only at the single true climax of the first movement—and then only briefly—did he unleash the forces available to him. What followed that tense, clenched understatement, was a ballsy opening of the second movement, see-sawing with a brawny string sound and giving an immediately perceptible different balance to the symphony. The second movement took on equal weight to what preceded it as the underlying pulse went—literally—through Chailly’s body.

The Frère Jacques double bass solo was ridiculously perfect, to the point of undermining the effect of playing at the very limits of a double bass' capability. (I would love to see a performance where the conductor doesn’t pick the soloist for that phrase until two bars before he or she has to play it; that should take do the trick of instilling the necessary dread). The violins continued with real verve in a third movement far more deliberate than I normally hear it performed. Deliberation and wonderful detail in the strings came forth again in the fourth movement, too, where Chailly harked back to the soft pianissimo of the first movement, forcing that attentiveness that compels listening. This forceful and determined presentation of the might have been too humorless for some, but whether one liked the goals of the interpretation or not, there was no denying that it was superbly done. Incidentally it was one of the very rare cases with the BRSO where the interpretation outclassed the performance—a fact that can largely be blamed on the brass section (horns especially), which had a miserable day. If they got their act together on the following night for the broadcast of the performance, the BR Klassik label might have a winner of a Mahler First in the can, well deserving of a release in the near future.

1 comment:

pyr said...

I was there at the Friday concert. The brass were generally OK, bar a few notes that threatened to crack (but almost didn't). Having listened to the recording of the BR broadcast, the impact is inevitably a bit less potent than when I was listening in the hall live...

Although Chailly's Mahler 1 is slightly more 'objective' than I prefer, it was still an exciting performance. Oh, and the pianissimi... Wunderbar.