Mahler 4 and much more

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Mahler 4 and much more

Post by Ricordanza » Wed Oct 09, 2013 8:13 pm

Saturday night’s Philadelphia Orchestra concert was billed as “Yannick Conducts Mahler 4,” and indeed, that headline was enough to entice many audience members (including this one) to select this concert for their subscription series. Since Mahler’s Fourth is his shortest symphony--a mere one hour in length--there was room for two other substantial works on the program. But the other two works were clearly not just “fillers.”

The evening began with Benjamin Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell. Perhaps better known as a narrated piece, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, without narration, the work stands on its own as a compact and exciting concerto for orchestra. The final section, where the intricate fugue gradually gives way to the restatement of the grand theme, is one of the most effective and thrilling orchestral passages in the 20th century repertoire. Every instrument, from bassoon to xylophone, has a chance to shine, and shine they did in this performance. As for the overall ensemble, I can only say that I have heard the Philadelphians regularly now for 15 years, and I cannot recall a more spectacular performance by the orchestra. Unsurprisingly, the audience responded with a roar.

So, after that boisterous beginning, where do we go next? Taking it down a few notches in the excitement level, the next work on the program was the autumnal and serene Oboe Concerto by Richard Strauss. The Philadelphia connections to this piece are interesting. It was first suggested to the aged Strauss in 1945 by an American soldier, John de Lancie, who was later to become principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra. De Lancie’s star pupil at the Curtis Institute was Richard Woodhams, who succeeded de Lancie as principal oboe, and was the outstanding soloist for this performance.

And then, after intermission, the featured work: we were treated to yet another great performance of a Mahler symphony under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The Fourth Symphony is a great work as a whole—and an audience favorite—but for me, the first movement is the gem. It begins with an extended lyrical passage, set against the sound of sleigh bells. But before long (this is Mahler, after all), it takes a dark turn, as anxiety and foreboding dominate the music. And then, the music turns again, subtly but inexorably shifting back to the sunnier and songful mood of the beginning. But let’s not slight the demonic scherzo, or the gorgeous slow movement that follows. However, in that third movement, Yannick slowed the pace to a barely perceptible crawl. I understood what he was trying to do, and an expansive approach is certainly necessary to bring out the full effect of this magnificent movement. But with the absence of momentum, in some places, the orchestra did not quite hold it together. Soprano soloist Christiane Karg sang sweetly and persuasively in the fourth movement. Interestingly, instead of standing next to the conductor, she was situated next to the harp, up a few rows and to the left of the conductor. Was this a better spot for the acoustical quirks of Verizon Hall? Perhaps so, as her voice reached us very well in our seats on the First Tier.

The symphony ends very quietly and the audience honored Yannick’s unspoken direction to hold their applause for a few moments, waiting until he slowly dropped his hands to his sides. Only then did the audience fully respond with a sustained ovation for the soloist, conductor and orchestra.

The Philadelphia Orchestra season has begun, and I am looking forward to every concert to come.

Donald Isler
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Re: Mahler 4 and much more

Post by Donald Isler » Fri Oct 11, 2013 10:59 pm

Thanks for the very well-written and interesting review, Henry! I would have been happy to hear that program!
Donald Isler

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