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Ionarts-at-Large: 15-*16-17-18 (Mahler & Mehta)

“16” – Munich. Mahler, Symphony No 1. Zubin Mehta / Munich Philharmonic

Just back from Herbert Schuch's recital at the Stuttgart Musikfest I waddled to the Munich Philharmonic's Season opening concert under Honorary Music Director Zubin Mehta. Verdi (La Forza del Destino Overture), Mozart (Symphony in D, K504 “Prague”), and of course Gustav Mahler are on the program.

The warm-up Verdi was very nicely done, as it should be, and the brass proved in adequate, appropriately blustery form. The Mozart exposed weaknesses, though. Not just among soloists (though the flutist wouldn’t have grounds to complain for being singled out), but also interpretively. The Adagio with its very soft, lively gait and veiled character was, charitably described, like a pleasant acquaintance: perhaps a pretty girl, neither too skinny nor spectacularly beautiful (certainly no trapezoid artist)… the kind that’s just good to be with and have around. But the relationship soured in the Andante, when pleasantry was undone by slow listlessness that wasn’t so much calm as it was lame… something from which the disorganized Finale could not recover.

available at AmazonG.Mahler, Symphony No.1 w/"Blumine",
D. Zinman
Mahler, then. The plan had been to perform “Titan – A Tone Poem in Symphonic Form”, which is to say the 1893 Hamburg version of what we know as the First Symphony:
When he performed the symphony again on October 27th, 1893 in Hamburg, significantly revised and still notably different from today’s commonly played version, new titles were added. The slow movement was now called “Blumine”, the symphony had acquired the moniker “Titan”. That’s not a reference to the parents of the Greek Gods (as tempting an idea that might be), but to a novel by one of Mahler’s favorite authors, Jean Paul. That particular “Titan” is an obstacle-hurdling artistic genius, a romantic idealist—which is in line with the original romantic program Mahler had constructed. There are more references to Jean Paul all over the symphony: The title “Blumine” is taken from an 1827 book of collected Jean Paul stories. Ditto the programmatic subtitle of the first movement (“Flower-, Fruit-, and Thorn-pieces”).

But Mehta had to alter the program—presumably after realizing in rehearsals that the challenge of just performing the ‘regular’ version of the symphony would prove daunting enough—and scrapped the “Titan” plans in favor of simply slipping the Blumine movement into the otherwise final version of the First Symphony. In theory, at least, that might be considered the worst option among the inclusion/exclusion/version possibilities, but to be honest: the worst it does is create an episodic insertion into the work as we know it, sounding vaguely in place more than it does out of place.

The same softness and organic cohesion of the Mozart first movement was present in the Mahler first movement, too, but to greater effect this time: a gentility with potential for thunder waiting above, rather than a gentility out of feebleness. Despite occasional ensemble problems and the dim lull of the Blumine movement, the performance left a pleasing impression. Not overwhelming, nor particularly aggressive (the Scherzo, for example, was toothless but energetic), and with a downright homely (i.e. nearly in tune) feel to the string section. The Frère Jacques double bass solo of the Scherzo—intentionally or not—was the kind of high-wire act it ought to be. Ending on a high note, Mehta finally unleashed the orchestra in the finale with a belated eruption of force after a wonderfully exaggerated ritard. All in all, a night that was more enjoyable than impressive…which is in any case better than the other way round.

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