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Mahler Festival Leipzig: Salonen - Dresden - Third Symphony

The Gewandhaus in Leipzig is mounting one of the most ambitious, condensed, and interesting Mahler tributes of 2011, having invited nine of the finest orchestras from near and afar to perform all eleven (!) of Mahler’s Symphonies (including Das Lied von der Erde and the Cooke performing version of the Tenth) in 12 days. I missed the opening shot, fired by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under their music director and Mahler-maven Riccardo Chailly – my loss, from what audience members unanimously agree on having been an early, hard-to-surpass performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony – but will catch all the rest.

The second concert was handed to the primary Saxonian rivals of the Gewandhaus, the Dresden Staatskapelle, who performed the vast and strange Third Symphony under Esa Pekka Salonen. Salonen – a svelte man, a little smaller in person than one might expect, and with more than a subtle hint of Pierce Brosnan – is ever coolly restrained, gently impatient... at least on the surface. Questions are answered with certainty by short, individual sentences that don’t invite to linger. Like miniature chapters that are opened and closed in under 25 words. He takes deliberate 3, 4, 5 second thinking-pauses before the formulation of each answer. There is that undeniably Finish taciturn element about him, which he acknowledges at a public talk after the performance (the “Mahler Lounge”): “Music is a great way for us Finns to communicate, because speaking is difficult for us. I’ve already used more words tonight than an average Finn would use in a year.”

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G.Mahler, Symphony No.3,
Salonen / LA Phil

Salonen side-steps the question at what point he gets sick of Mahler by pointing out that he has done relatively little Mahler in 2010 and 2011, and got most of the Mahler over and done with the Philharmonia’s ‘Vienna Weeks’ in 2009 (M9 in Vienna 2009, for example... but also M3 with the WPh in Salzburg in 2008). But then in a brief coy moment, he finishes the sentence “…I figured the world will be absolutely saturated with Mahler and I thought I’d try not to add to the pollution.” He will do this Third in Leipzig and Dresden with the Staatskapelle, the Second Symphony in London a year from now, and Number Six in Chicago. “That’s all.”

Maybe there can’t be too much Mahler (“there cannot be too much music… good music at least, that’s for sure”), but Mahler is the one composer, Salonen sighs, that doesn’t need this kind of celebration, because his music is played all the time. “He is perhaps the most popular composer in the repertoire at the moment—in many big metropolitan areas. So in a sense I would rather see lesser known but good, interesting, important composers celebrated... whose music is neglected for whatever reason… so that their music would be lifted into the consciousness of the wider public. Mahler is doing just fine.” (His urgent suggestions for more worthwhile celebrations are Haydn and Lutosławski!)

Eventually the Gewandhaus fills up to three quarters capacity and Mahler’s longest Symphony gets under way. In the powerful beginning, the brass immediately established itself as gorgeous sounding (with a bit of glare)… and almost as immediately as fallible; with individual bloomers dotted throughout the night. The Posthorn solo, at least, went off without a glitch… even if it wasn’t nearly played with the ridiculous perfection or ease that the soloist of the BRSO managed a few months ago. Strings played with great zest and cohesion; the piccolos were overly shrill and the woodwinds had their share of unintentional chaotic moments.

I don’t believe in making the orchestra feel insecure or uncomfortable. I don’t think it helps, at least not in my case.

Salonen, with his clean and calm technique, telegraphing every entry to every musician well in advance, safely guided the orchestra through a tame, not to say listless, second movement. The third movement’s Comodo – Scherzando – Without Haste had, almost inevitably, more zest. Lilli Paasikivi, the alto on “O Mensch-ing” duty that night, provided the first true highlight. Her voice was amazingly present, always close to one’s ears without being loud. The eminently suitable vibrato was wide on held notes, and along with her voice’s color, reed-like and unforced. Her orchestral partner, the cor anglais, meanwhile could not bring himself to really slide through those portamenti, which made the affair a touch more stodgy than it needed to be. On a more superficial note: Paasikivi’s choice of dress—a diagonal cut, one-shoulder cave man’s dream in luscious mastodon-brown—might could have been improved upon.

Salonen is a conductor with a tendency towards beauty and immaculacy, which can sometimes be code for “boring”. Some of the early to middle Riccardo Chailly, Bernard Haitink and, in a different, fussy, micromanaging way, Mariss Jansons (all RCO conductors, strangely) can be lumped in with those who tend to err on the side of refinement over emotion. But Salonen’s aim for beauty and security did not impede on the soaring finale of the Third Symphony. “Exhausting, yes” Salonen said after the concert. “But at the end of the last movement, if you have a fine orchestra, you feel like you’re at the end of your journey and you can just ride a wave. You receive energy, rather than investing it. Usually I feel elevated and keenly alive after conducting the Third.”

If it wasn’t the most elevating experience for the audience, Salonen was probably not at fault. Of the four Mahler Thirds I’ve heard live in relatively short succession (Jansons/RCO in Amsterdam, Jurowski/LPO in London, Jansons/BRSO in Munich, and now this one), none had that sense of apotheosis one hopes for. Vladimir Jurowski managed two superb, gripping movements, but tapered off. Jansons/BRSO offered the most flawless performance imaginable, but never achieved lift-off in the finale. Salonen/Dresden, for all the quibbles, at least went furthest in providing a wave one could ride. Not one moistened by tears, but more than suitable enough to carry one for 22 hours to the Tenth Symphony the next night.