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Ionarts in Florence: Staatskapelle Berlin Plays Mahler 5

Daniel Barenboim, conductorFresh from Milan (see Opera Chic) on a tour of Europe, the Staatskapelle Berlin came to the Teatro Comunale di Firenze on Tuesday night. Much of this venerable orchestra's performance time is spent playing for opera and ballet productions at the Staatsoper in Berlin. As part of the group's annual series of symphonic concerts, they brought Mahler to Florence. A house somewhere short of full perhaps indicated that the Austrian composer may not be everyone's cup of tea in Italy (unlike in Munich, I am sure), but several Mahler-philes in the audience made their presence known.

Barenboim's Mahler Symphony Cycle:
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Symphony No. 5 (Chicago Symphony)

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Symphony No. 7 (Staatskapelle Berlin)

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Symphony No. 9 (Staatskapelle Berlin)
The Staatskapelle's long-time director, Daniel Barenboim, stamped this performance of Mahler's fifth symphony with his idiomatic style. (Ionarts last reviewed this work as performed live by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2004. Jens was not impressed by Barenboim's Mahler ninth in 2005.) His conducting, musical approach, and even work at the piano are robust, tending toward emotional outbursts, tense and exciting build-ups, and above all, powerful sound. This was a full-voiced Mahler, with Barenboim massing sound into monolithic blocks. Thrilling moments, dominated by the impressive brass section, abounded in the middle part of the funeral march, and even more in the vehement opening of the second movement and the crushing loudness of the last. Only the trumpet principal seemed fatigued by touring, with more than a couple cracks and splats in the crucial opening of the funeral march.

At the same time, Barenboim paid careful attention to scaling sections down to bring out unusual voicings and colors. The contrabassoon and triangle popped out of the softer part of the second movement, as did a stunning cello solo, so pure and sweet, leading to that powerful crescendo. Superb solo horn playing was featured in the gently undulating scherzo movement, with those strange stylistic turns -- a little balalaika serenade, a pretty music box aria. All of this seems to indicate that what is possibly shaping up to be a complete Mahler cycle from Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin will be of some interest. Our resident Mahler expert will be sure to tell us what to think.

One listens to this symphony largely for its devastating Adagietto, which featured prominently in Luchino Visconti's film Death in Venice. The slow movement is related thematically to the composer's own song -- Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, from the Rückert-Lieder -- about seeing the inevitability of death and being lost from the world. The composition of the fifth symphony followed closely upon Mahler's near-fatal intestinal hemorrhage in 1901. The gentle sound began imperceptibly, and Barenboim allowed the movement to unfold in a calm, suspended way, not bending or distorting the tempo through too much rubato. With a careful sense of ensemble from the orchestra, which plays in a most unified way, the song was a tragic memory, rather than an over-emotional confession.

Most striking was the balletic realization of the various dance and folk elements in this performance. The melancholy tango-like section that leads into the somber end of the funeral march and the hearty Schubertian dance in the second movement had a well-choreographed lilt. In particular, in the scherzo's suave trio, Barenboim swayed around the podium, seemingly looking for a partner.

The final concert date for Ionarts in Florence was the last concert of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Mahler's seventh symphony with the Staatskapelle Berlin. Review forthcoming tomorrow.

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