Happy "tragic" end to Kees Bakel's reign at MPO

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MACHINA weapon
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Happy "tragic" end to Kees Bakel's reign at MPO

Post by MACHINA weapon » Sun Jul 17, 2005 10:44 pm

The season finale, the finale of all finales to Kees Bakel's reign at Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is Mahler's Sixth symphony. Kees Bakels had been a "hermit" Mahlerian, his reputation of Mahler only well-known to Malaysians here. But sometimes hype is misleading, especially since the only live Mahler performances I've heard is only under Bakels. So I doubt whether he could pull of the Sixth well. The brasses of MPO are fine, but it will take Malaysian Phil of at least standard of American orchestras like Chicago Symphony to pull off a convincing Mahler Sixth.

However, I took notice when a writer for classical music column in Malaysia's News Straits Times Edward Dorall reviewed Bakel's Mahler 4th performed three years ago as the best Mahler 4th he ever listened. Maestro Bakel's again astound me with his Mahler 7th last year, with finest Nachtmuzik movements I've ever heard, blowing off conceptions by Abbado, Tilson Thomas, Bernstein and Boulez. Can he pull it again for his farewell concert? One can note a certain irony here as Bakels is quite controversial too from rumours that he was a dictatorial conductor. I even heard rumours that one player complained that he "lacked humanity". So, maybe it is no nonsense Bakels knew what to do with his Mahler.

He even arranged for two versions of Mahler Sixth. The Friday concert has Andante Moderato preceeding Scherzo, as Mahler did on his premiere. He originally performes the conventional version where it's the Scherzo preceeding the Andante at Sunday, but changed his mind at Saturday. All three performances has three hammerblows retained.

In his final interview before the performance on Sunday which I attended, the audiences get to know Bakel's relationship with Mahler. Bakels is from Netherlands, and he remarked Amsterdam is closest to home when it comes to Mahler himself. The city's relationship with Mahler needs no introduction; Mengelberg and Haitink has led Concertgebouw as one of the finest Mahler orchestras in the world and Mahler's symphonies have been well-received when other parts of Europe had been cool to him. He talked of Mahler, the conductor for whom work obsessed his life until it eventually drove him to bad health and death. Of the Sixth, Bakels explained to audiences the order and equilibrium of first and last movements. These movements have two contrasting moods; the Allegro starts with tragedy preceeding joy and they pitted against each other until triumph prevails at the coda and Finale had the battle resumed, but as we know tragedy prevails - Fate triumphed against it's victimised Hero. There is also a certain curve wave as Bakels explain. The first movement has octave drops from high A to low A and the last movement is vice-versa if you listen to the main themes. Other things to expect are the Alma theme , and the strong influences of military marches that Mahler was influenced as a child. This gives audiences unfamiliar to Mahler how the symphony works.

Maestro Bakels gave solid and tension driven first movement and the only thing lacked were the distinction of dynamics. Benjamin Zander demonstrated with the same orchestra on mahler Ninth how he could achieve true pianissisimo when directing the Andante Comodo and it is one of the only minor weak points of the performance. The climaxes are fine, but the orchestra could use more pianissimos. The Scherzo is pretty much standard, but Bakes began to pull off his miracle when it comes to the Andante. He avoids a tendency of doing a "Bruckner" with the strings and the strings has independent voices on their own. Bakels managed the movement without pathos and sentimentalism of Bernstein, cool apathy of Boulez or patrician approach of Zander. A disturbing moment was a cellist who was seen either sobbing or probably coughing relentlessly before she retired halfway from the performance. Was she moved? I can say I was very moved. Oh, the cowbells were too intrusive by the way.

So here comes the Finale. The opening still doesn't surpass Bernstein's chilling approach (1988 VPO recording) but it does set precadent of things to come. Here I can say the brasses of MPO gave what probably is their finest hour. I am always sceptical of the brasses when it comes to Bruckner, but they're always their best on Mahler. The cry of disgust by solo horn on an A octave-leap is well executed before the music dies down and introduces a most grim main theme. The whole movement is total chaos, but without hysteria and over-driven like Solti. In fact, I think it is as gritty as Bernstein without his melodrama excess. The only theatrical moments are each time the percussionist shows up to deliver a hammerblow, and there's even a spotlight aimed at him where, above the orchestra on a balcony, he prepares the blow like an executioner and audiences will turn their heads and watch in fascination. How's the hammerblow? Bakels made sure each blow gets softer as Mahler directs, even if I disagree with the composer. So Bakels ends the coda with a heart-crushing climax and I felt drained and lifeless. So as the whole audience and only when Bakes came out the second time for his curtain call, only the reserved Malaysians gave him a standing ovation. 70% of the audiences stand up and gave Maestro Bakels applause. It is a performance where I have seen the most number of individuals giving a standing ovation and what a fitting end to Bakel's career, although for the choice of work, it is a little disturbing.

The Malaysian Mahler legacy started with a friend of mine, Hock Doong started Malaysian Mahlerites. When Benjamin Zander came to Malaysia, the players of Malaysian Phil were concerned about attendences to the Mahler 9th, and Maestro Zander made new Malaysian Mahler converts during his two-weel stay in Malaysia. Maestro Bakels strengthened audiences for Mahler concerts after his departure and on Sunday, I've seen many youths who're attending the performance. Maestro Zander's CDs had been consistently out of stock and sales of Mahler recordings had been quite well as I observed during these years. And I thank Maestro Zander and Bakels for their effort. I can only wonder how the new music director, Mattias Bamert, will do for next season's Das Lied Von Der Erde and Fifth symphony for Mahler. A legacy by Kees Bakels for Malaysian Philharmonic, and which it will be difficult to maintain. I hope maestro Bakels will record his Mahler.

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Post by Ralph » Mon Jul 18, 2005 5:23 pm

Great review, thanks.

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Post by Michael » Tue Jul 19, 2005 12:00 pm

Kees Bakels is a fine musician and a decent bloke. I worked as concert-master for him many years ago in Belgium and found him to be a sincere and capable musician. David Oistrakh gave his last concerto performance under his baton.
Michael from The Colne Valley, Yorkshire.

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