Bach and Mahler - Perfect Together?

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Bach and Mahler - Perfect Together?

Post by Ricordanza » Mon Jan 30, 2012 9:35 pm

Classical Music fans have a problem with the term, Classical Music. Only the most exacting purists insist that it’s limited to music of the Classical era, that is, Haydn, Mozart and early to middle Beethoven. But it’s still jarring to hear the term used to refer to music ranging from the Renaissance and Baroque eras to the huge variety of works by current composers. No one has come up with a suitable alternate term. Serious music? Art music? None make much sense.

Nor has anyone offered an acceptable definition of “classical music.” I’m beginning to think that the circular definition works as well as anything else: it’s music one hears in the concert hall. And on Thursday evening, the Philadelphia Orchestra illustrated that circular definition by including two very different works on its program, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 6.

We learn from the concert notes that Bach presented six concertos to Christian Ludwig, the Margrave (military governor) of Brandenburg, as a sort of job application. Accompanied by a letter in which Bach showed he was adept at “bowing and scraping,” Bach observed that, on a previous occasion, this nobleman had taken “some delight in the small musical talent [!] that Heaven has granted me.” Although Bach didn’t land this job, audiences over the next almost three hundred years have delighted in these engaging works. The fifth is the longest and most elaborate of the set, presented as a triple concerto for violin, flute and harpsichord. Concertmaster David Kim, Principal Flute Jeffrey Khaner, and Music Director Designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin were the fine soloists in this three-movement work. The work is known for its extended harpsichord cadenza at the conclusion of the first movement, ably performed by Yannick. My only quibble with the piece was that the delicate sound of the harpsichord could barely be heard when the rest of the 20-member ensemble was playing, lost in the comparatively vast expanse of Verizon Hall, and was just about audible in this solo passage. It’s a wonderful work to include on a Philadelphia Orchestra program, but it is better suited to a more intimate venue than Verizon Hall.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 is a contrasting work in almost every aspect. Like other Mahler works, it is scored for a huge orchestra, it has a duration of an hour and ten minutes (at least), and instead of the carefully ordered world of Bach, it unleashes a torrent of emotions in a hugely varied soundscape. But despite its length, it is the most “classically” structured of the Mahler symphonies—an opening Allegro, a slow movement, a Scherzo, and a Finale. The middle two movements appear in the manuscript in a different order, with the Scherzo as the second movement and the Andante as the third movement. But it appears that Mahler could not make up his mind about the order, and on the three occasions when he conducted the work, he performed the Andante as the second movement, and the Scherzo as the third. This, indeed, is the traditional “classical” order, and it was the order followed by Yannick in Thursday night’s performance.

The symphony bears the subtitle “Tragic” and, indeed, the theme of inexorable fate colors this symphony in a dark hue. The ending is particularly depressing to many listeners, invoking a feeling of defeat, or surrender to inevitable death. But during those 80 minutes, one can hear some of the most imaginative, moving, and wonderfully orchestrated music that Mahler ever wrote. Notwithstanding the theme and mood of this symphony, I find this work uplifting, especially when performed, as it was Thursday evening, with passion and precision and outstanding solo playing by the Philadelphians under their incoming leader.

Yes, there are some small financial details to be resolved. But with Yannick on the podium, we can look forward to many years of great music making with this still-proud Orchestra.

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Re: Bach and Mahler - Perfect Together?

Post by Seán » Tue Feb 07, 2012 3:29 pm

I enjoyed your review, thanks for posting it.

"To appreciate the greatness of the Masters is to keep faith in the greatness of humanity." - Wilhelm Furtwängler

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