Runnicles and Maher's 10th with National Symphony

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Runnicles and Maher's 10th with National Symphony

Post by diegobueno » Tue Mar 06, 2018 12:48 pm

My wife and I braved the high winds (and I don't mean flutes. They sounded marvelous) in Washington DC last night (March 2) and went down to the Kennedy Center to hear Donald Runnicles conduct the Symphony no. 10 in F# major by Gustav Mahler. I have a few words to say about what I heard.

The conductor addressed the audience before playing the music, talking about Mahler's obsession with death, his anguish at finding out Alma was having an affair with Walter Gropius, his sessions with Freud, and then his reconciliation with Alma. He said he interpreted this symphony, after all the other death-obsessed works he'd written, as one in which Mahler makes peace with his mortality, as he finally did with Alma, and that the whole drama of the work is geared towards that moment of acceptance at the end of the 5th movement.

As the performance unfolded, it was clear that he was following that interpretation of the work's "inner program", as Mahler would put it, in his interpretation of the music. He actually downplayed the angst in the first movement, which is not to say that he eliminated it, but rather let it emerge on its own without trying to make the strings play extra expressively. So the opening passage, with the violas by themselves was played very smoothly, very legato, even very tranquilly. This is very chromatic music, but the music didn't start sounding angsty, until the brass started reinforcing the harmony, and a very twisted chromatic harmony it is. There are many passages of detailed woodwind chattering, all of it was carried out with extreme clarity by the wind section. I heard great things from the very large woodwind section all evening.

About 2/3 of the way into the 1st movement, there's a great eruption in the brass, sounding like a mighty organ. Runnicles let the strings die down to their softest pianissimo, and then BAM. The massively dissonant chord which marks the climax was nowhere as brutal is it seems on recordings. I think the concert hall acoustics mellow the sound, whereas recording engineers pump up the volume on the brass putting the dissonant brass right in your face. I can tell you that the brass section was not playing namby-pamby. There were moments throughout the symphony where they were overpowering the other sections that had more important material. But they got a thorough work-out in the second movement, a complex scherzo all bustling with inner voices in the winds and brass.

The emotional high point of the symphony happens in the 5th and final movement. I never heard it so clearly as in this performance. There's a flute solo at the beginning of the movement, just heartbreakingly beautiful, especially in response to everything in the symphony that proceeded it. It was like after a rough journey, Gustav is finally just alone with Alma to pour out his heart ("Für dich leben, für dich sterben, Almschi" he wrote at some point in the manuscript). The strings take up the melody and the texture becomes richer until brutally cut off by the persistent bass drum.

Now that bass drum was also part of the drama of the piece. It was loud, sharp and made you jump in your seat, even though you knew it was coming. If you didn't know it was coming it REALLY made you jump. It comes as the last note of the 4th movement, and also the first note of the 5th. I always thought Mahler's intention was that the bass drum stroke that ends the 4th movement would be the same as the one that begins the 5th, but Runnicles played them both, which is the only time you hear two bass drum strokes in a row.

Anyway, I've never gotten the sense of culmination out of this music as I did last night. You could not listen to the Mahler's 10 that was played last night and continue to say "One should only perform the Adagio." No, such a position is absolutely ridiculous. The Mahler 10th represented in Deryck Cooke's realization is an integrated whole. It tells a story that needs to be followed from beginning to end. It cannot be left as a bleeding chunk. No excuses. Play the whole darn thing or don't play it at all.
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