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Ionarts at Large: Fabio Luisi in Mahler & Beethoven

Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony and Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto are separated by less time than separates us from the premiere of the Mahler Symphony (in it’s final form) in Berlin. A fact that has been true for 15 years. (Quiz: If the Beethoven concerto was premiered in 1800, when was Mahler’s work premiered?) And yet Mahler still seems so much more current, (sometimes even modern) than Beethoven – while Beethoven’s C-major piano concerto op.15 is instead graced with timelessness. You would think classical music – as everything else in life – to have changed more in the last hundred years than in any hundred years before that. Did it– but it ceased to be relevant at some point? Perhaps questions for a long night with Mahler and Single Malt.

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Mahler, Sy.2, MDRSO / Luisi

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Mahler, Sy.6, MDRSO / Luisi

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Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde et al., MDRSo / Luisi

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Robert & Clara Schumann, Piano Concertos, Hohenrieder / New Philharmonic Westphalia / Wildner
Both composers – though not the libation – were present in the second week of April when Winderstein Concerts presented Fabio Luisi’s at the Munich Philharmonic Hall with his orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden. The Mahler performed there will soon join the many recent issues of Mahler symphonies (on DVD, presumably, as it was filmed), but whether that performance had what it takes to merit preservation for future generations could be doubted. While the Dresden orchestra is one of the handful of best orchestras in Germany, and while it knows its Mahler (reiterated by recently issued Giuseppe Sinopoli recordings from their vault on the Profil label), and while its string section never offers anything less than impressive ensemble work, and while Luisi seemed utterly engaged in every aspect of this performance, the result was distinctively lackluster.

The brass section had inexplicable lapses in the “Titan’s” finale (when they had been so impressive, still, in the first movement), the Frère Jacques round in the third movement (played by the entire double bass section – though sometimes taken solo) was of unfortunate accuracy and refinement, without any sense of terror, warped frenzy, or being slightly off kilter. The Hungaro/Jewish dance elements, rendered with delicate refinement, made me wish the Saxon State Orchestra Dresden might play a little less perfectly. The utmost gentility of the morning dew, though, was superbly crafted.

On the upside, the second movement had zest and vitality – at which the orchestra was clearly better than mystical evocation. In the finale they were, Chicagoean brass crudeness and wobbles aside, going at it again with verve. It was impossible not to hear the wind, but the felt impact they made was disproportionately small. Lagging, purposelessness slow parts, and some very unfortunate string sounds in ppp passages did not heighten the experience – whereas watching Luisi did. The cameras, which seemed to ignore him, should have focused on nothing else but the little conductor who, like Mahler might have himself, flung his arms about with passion, made little leaps… in short: was the embodiment of the music as aerobic exercise.

The Mahler performance was rapturously received all the same – but the actual excellence of this concert lied in the Beethoven concerto No.1 in C-major. Partly because it is such a great concerto: graceful like Mozart initially, but soon showing a little Beethovenian muscle – surely one of the (from a Western point of view) most civilized pieces of music composed. Refinement and beauty balanced with wit, sparkle, and thunder – and all in a very sympathetic performance by the Staatskapelle and Margarita Höhenrieder.

Her playing was no-nonsense, clear, and secure – which could most generously be described as in the vain of Wilhelm Backhausen (or less generously as one of thwarted passion). It suited the exquisite orchestral performance with the strings particularly energetic and gripping in that way that only live performances can convey – and then only the most precise, and cohesive ones. The third, bravura, cadenza of the Allegro con brio was delivered with fleet fingers by the former Leon Fleisher student from Munich, though disjointed on one, two occasions.

The calm, even languid second movement had similar virtues, capped by a wonderfully casual, flippant entry into the third movement where the full power of the reduced Staatskappellen-forces (11-11-8-6-5 plus trombone, horn, clarinet, bassoon, flute, oboe, and timpani) was unleashed.

Stubbornly prolonged applause forced an encore out of Mme. Höhenrieder, which was dedicated to and by Harald Genzmer who, aged 98, passed away in December of 2007. A short piece – also in C-major – of angular beauty and business – virtuosic sounding in a way one might expect from Frederic Rzewski.

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