A Major Minor: Mozart, Mahler & MRIs. Tanglewood, July 17, 2009

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Gustav Mahler in 1909
Gustav Mahler in 1909

Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K.488, Leon Fleisher, Piano; James Levine, Conductor; The Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Mahler, Symphony No. 6 in A Minor, James Levine, Conductor; The Boston Symphony Orchestra.

What is the sense in scheduling Mozart’s loveliest piano concerto with Mahler’s most unremittingly trenchant symphony? For contrast? For anesthesia? The latter struck me this week having had an MRI two days before this concert. I had been dreading going for this notorious exam; and I approach  Mahler’s Sixth, as well, with fear and trembling. They both can be perceived as kindred experiences: a claustrophobia-inducing confinement for an inordinate time period, replete with an assault on one’s ears with harsh volleys of martial outbursts. As one’s ions begin to combust, the need to break free becomes absolute. After it’s all over, you are reduced to a throbbing, sweaty pulp; life can continue only after a twenty-four hour sleep. It’s not that I don’t like this Mahler. In fact, it’s one of my favorites. Done well, it has staggering power and breathtaking sweep; ravaging first-time listeners, it is an emotionally and physically exhausting work. No symphony I know lives up to its moniker, “The Tragic,” as well as does this one. The effect it had on Mahler, Alma, and early audiences was the same: no one had suffered so much in the thrall of the Aeolian Mode.

The pairing of Mozart’s A Major and Mahler’s A Minor, was, I believe, emblematic of the underlying motivic device of the symphony: the “motto” theme of four A Major chords paired with the parallel minor chords: a sort of marching version of the major-minor idea of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. The general pessimism inherent in this key change becomes the kernel of a near ninety-minute symphony.

The sixth adheres rather remarkably to the classical four-movement symphonic form. The first and last movements are in sonata/allegro form; the slow movement is a bipartite song; the third, a scherzo. However, to say that it reveals an apparent classical structure is like saying a five hundred pound person in formal dress is a model of classic sartorial proportion. There is a very tight structure, but, so much appears attenuated on first hearing, that a discussion of structure might seem ludicrous. However, the fact that order is so keenly imposed on this sprawling work begs the question of whether formal underpinnings can, or even should, be clarified in performance. It becomes the main challenge of the conductor, I feel, to articulate, by long-range thinking, whether Mahler’s adherence to classical structure is not merely perverse. Ultimately, the intelligence of the performance gives shape to the great final movement. Making sense of the finale gives meaning to the entire four-movement experience, and is thus the central challenge for the conductor. The rising flourishes with harp, strings, and celeste limn a blueprint of the tragic apotheosis to follow. The major-minor “motto” returns; a dirge materializes from vapor; menacing contrapuntal episodes carry us on, where? Thematic material from other movements return or are suggested in caricature: the commedia dell’arte of the scherzo; the pastoral cow bells of the first two movements (“the last greeting from earth to penetrate the remote solitude of the mountain peaks,” as Mahler writes); the “love” or “Alma” theme, from the opening movement, makes a brave show but becomes trammeled amidst the phantasmagorical march. There is burgeoning of hope with rousing episodes and incipient chorale perorations, but all is for naught: two hammer blows – literally – dash all in the development. The recapitulation leaves the door open for a breath of hope. However, the coda, one of the most extraordinary moments in music, has an unforgettable effect: the soft groaning and weirdly keening brass suggests one’s final throes; a momentary quiver of life follows; and cruel death’s macabre musical puppetry is dealt one last and hair-raising coup de grâce; a spastic thump is all at the end.

Levine’s performance, while vigorous, well played, and very exciting, did not do service to the great depth and emotional drama of this work. On one level, it was a positive, rousing experience; the orchestral brilliance was showcased with little attention to the pathos or underlying structure. Yes, there were dramatic blasts, yawps, bangs, and cow bells; Levine certainly captured the frightening martial spirit. The BSO played with virtuosic execution, and one clearly heard every layer of color. But so much was left unshaped or unstructured that the apocalyptic final bars felt redundant and meaningless. As a matter of fact, the last note, the soft thump with pizzicato strings and drum, wound up as two notes when the ensemble slipped. Bad timing. Lacking a real mallet for the hammer strokes (a traditional bass drum was used), while consistent with Levine’s mono-dynamic conception, was a sorry omission. Adhering to Mahler’s intentions, and allowing these transcendental concussions, would have forced Levine to rethink the flow of the movement, which, I think, would have been for the good. If properly done, the coda should leave the audient insensate. Tonight it sounded like misplaced exuberance.

The horns afforded a bit of complaint. They played very well – too well, and too loud. The principal played with a heavy tone, producing cold clot where warmth and fluidity should be. The horns’ bluntness was especially annoying in the final movement. Here the horns played the throbbing A-Major/Minor “motto” without dynamically distinguishing the harmonic change; this upstaged the bitter and agitated response of strings.

Leon Fleisher’s career has been defined by an enormous talent constrained by focal dystonia, a neurological disorder that has curtailed his pianistic career. With Botox treatment, sufferers of this paralysis have been able to partly overcome the devastating effects. Fleisher had been specializing in left-handed repertoire (thanks to Paul Wittgenstein, a not insignificant niche). Tonight, Mr Fleisher played with both hands. More importantly, he played with all of his musicality and insight. And beautiful it was, in spite of the fingering difficulties. In a few florid passages he used his left hand to traverse the upper registers. His tone was measured and light; his intelligence and phrasing shaped everything to perfection. The slow movement, a gorgeous siciliano, is full blush with the melancholy of early Romanticism. Augmented and “Neapolitan” sixth chords, deceptive cadences, and colorful borrowings hint at Schubert’s palette decades later. Levine and a reduced BSO ensemble were perfect collaborators. The Jack-in-the-Box finale is Mozart’s way of rousing his audience from the somber middle movement: jarring thoughts, as Wordsworth might say “lie too deep for tears.” With the Mahler presented in the second half, such restraint was dashed aside.

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