Mahler 5 plus a novelty

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Mahler 5 plus a novelty

Post by Ricordanza » Sat Oct 19, 2019 3:39 pm

When a Mahler symphony is on the program, it’s always the main event. Sometimes, in the case of his longest symphonies (like the Second, Third, Eighth and Ninth), it is the only event. Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is plenty long—running about an hour and 15 minutes—but there’s generally room for one more relatively short piece on the program. But what piece can share the bill with a dominating Mahler work?

On Thursday evening, October 17, the Philadelphia Orchestra answered that question with a rarely performed work: the Schubert/Liszt Wanderer Fantasy.

Schubert composed his Wanderer Fantasy as a solo piano piece. Never one to let a good melody be wasted, Schubert built this piece on a theme from his own song, Der Wanderer. To the casual listener, the piece appears to have several themes, but they are all derived from the one he “borrowed” from the song. The other unique feature of this piece is that it is Schubert’s only piano work explicitly intended as a virtuoso showpiece (and the one piano composition of his own that Schubert admitted he couldn’t play!).

Almost 30 years after the piece was written, and more than 20 years after Schubert’s untimely death at the age of 31, Franz Liszt transformed it into a work for piano and orchestra. These days, the piano and orchestra version is something of a novelty and is rarely performed on the concert stage. As the program notes indicated, it has only been performed twice before in the 119-year history of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Indeed, this was the first time I’ve heard this piece in concert.

How does it compare to the original? While I certainly could hear some “Lisztian” touches, the essential thematic content and structure of this marvelous work remains untouched.

Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin led Thursday night’s exciting performance, and the piano soloist was the widely admired Canadian pianist, Louis Lortie. Lortie made us pay attention immediately with his surprisingly subdued opening solo passage, and his poetic playing in the Adagio was mesmerizing. But in the many passages that call for pianistic thunder, Lortie more than delivered.

But let’s get to the main event. My favorite Mahler symphony is usually the one I’ve most recently heard, but if I was forced to choose one, it would be the Fifth. Some might prefer one of the symphonies with a vocal component, but the purely instrumental Fifth offers the opportunity to appreciate the work of a master orchestrator at the height of his powers without—dare I say it—the distraction of singing voices.

Of course, Mahler’s masterful use of orchestral resources is only the beginning. What holds the listener’s attention is the wealth of musical material that is presented through those resources. Mahler’s Fifth contains one astonishing musical idea after another, beginning with the stirring trumpet call that opens the work, the melancholy yet uplifting funeral march, the Viennese waltzes and peasant dances, the extended and heartfelt horn solo, the famous Adagietto—perhaps the most beautiful slow movement in the symphonic literature--and the jubilant finale. I realize that this description sounds more like the kitchen sink than a single symphonic work, but somehow, all of these diverse elements are held together in a coherent whole.

A great piece requires a great performance, which is what we heard Thursday evening. The Philadelphians continue to shine under Yannick’s direction and, apart from a little ragged ensemble playing by the winds in the first movement, delivered a magnificent rendition of this massive work. Two outstanding soloists enhanced this performance—Billy Hunter, the principal trumpet at Yannick’s “other” orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s own principal horn, Jennifer Montone.

My own enjoyment of this work was enhanced by our seat location: dead center in the first row of the First Tier. I could not ask for a better visual or acoustic experience.

When it was finally time for the audience to respond with its prolonged and enthusiastic ovation, Yannick did not merely point to the soloists from the podium: he walked up to each one of the soloists and to every other instrument section, asking them to stand in turn and receive the well-deserved appreciation of the audience.

I only wish that Mahler himself could have been on hand to take a bow.

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Re: Mahler 5 plus a novelty

Post by Seán » Wed Nov 06, 2019 7:48 am

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review, well done.

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

John F
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Re: Mahler 5 plus a novelty

Post by John F » Wed Nov 06, 2019 10:01 am

It's only recently, within a few decades, that a Mahler symphony (other than the 8th) has made up the whole of a concert program. When Bruno Walter conducted the 5th he always paired it with other music, such as Haydn's Symphony no. 88 or the Schumann piano concerto with Harold Bauer. I have the impression that it may have been Herbert von Karajan who limited his programs to a single long Bruckner or Mahler symphony; certainly it was one of his Berlin Philharmonic concerts in New York at which I saw this happen. Whether this was to spare his back, or to ration the amount of music in the concert, or (with otherc onductors and orchestras) because of constraints on rehearsal time, I don't know.
John Francis

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