Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Renée Fleming, James Levine, and the Boston Symphony in Berg, Richard Strauss, and Mahler

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Des Knaben Wunderhorn, ed. 1874, frontispiece
Des Knaben Wunderhorn, ed. 1874, frontispiece

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Friday, February 12, 8 p.m.
James Levine, conductor
Renée Fleming, soprano

Berg, Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6
Strauss, Four Last Songs
Mahler, Symphony No. 4

Before getting into the program in detail, it’s worth noting that here again the BSO and New York Philharmonic programs overlap. While Levine in the Berg Three Pieces is returning to repertoire with which he has been closely associated for many years—music inspired by the composer of the main work, Gustav Mahler—Gilbert approached the same work as part of his ongoing exploration of the Second Vienna School, which has enriched his programming throughout the year, and, I’m sure, will continue throughout his career.

Often, hearing the BSO at Symphony Hall is a spatial experience. Berg’s fragmented scoring of longer sections among disparate choirs of the orchestra created an almost eerie effect of coherent music dismembered and spread over a vast space. Levine’s fairly deliberate tempi made sure that there was plenty of space and atmosphere around the every phrase, chord, attack, or stroke of the percussion. The detail in the percussion in opening bars was astonishing, and the performance continued in this way throughout. An unerring sense of the longer and shorter shape of the music was combined with meticulous attention to sonorities and textures, and all this was enhanced by the superb playing of the Boston Symphony. We were constantly aware of its Mahlerian origins as well as of everything that was different, everything that was most characteristically Berg, for example his ferocious vivisection of a military march in the final piece.

One often reads (and James Levine’s and Mark DeVoto’s prgram notes are no exception) that the Three Pieces for Orchestra are not performed as often as they should be or have failed to find a secure place in the repertory. This may be true, although the almost simultaneous performances in New York and Boston and their inclusion in the New York Philharmonic’s European tour programs are encouraging signs. Several composers and critics have criticised the Three Pieces as compositions—which fails to weaken their magical power to fascinate listeners. James Levine shows how well he understands this in his enthusiasm for the work. Berg’s glorious music could have had no more eloquent hommage. It was also a model for Levine in his conception of the Fourth Symphony, and a most effective one at that.

Between these two related works, we heard Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. Since, as in the last movement of Mahler’s Fourth, the contemplation of life lived-out and ensuing death dominate Strauss’ settings of three poems by Hesse and one by Eichendorff, this is entirely appropriate, and they bring in another strain in twentieth-century German music, which is almost equally important to Maestro Levine. Strauss’ rich, elegiac scores gave the Boston Symphony ample opportunity to exploit the sheer beauty of sound which, always one of their most familiar and prized characteristics, has been much in the foreground in recent concerts. Renée Fleming approached them in the same spirit. Drawing out a gorgeous, extended melodic line, she allowed her voice to expand in its richest, golden effulgence. Her voice showed not only her luxuriant highlights, but a depth of tone, recalling to a certain extant the much larger voice of Kirsten Flagstad, who sang the premiere of the songs with Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Philhamonia Orchestra in 1950 (recording of this performance can be found). She and James Levine were so deeply absorbed in the beauty of Strauss’ phrases and sounds, that the texts seemed to fade into the background. Neither Flagstad nor Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whose interpretation is widely admired, are particularly inclined in that direction, especially Schwarzkopf, who was renowned for her charged attention to the words she was singing and their meaning. Fleming’s understanding of the songs was appropriate, even sensitive, but quite generalized.

Awakened by Berg, Levine adopted a deliberate tempo which let every detail be heard with plenty of acoustic space around it and concentrated on every passing color, dissonance, or inflection that reflected the particular character of Mahler’s complex, ironic treatment of his curiously trivial thematic material. These tuneful, often folk-like motifs, in which the composer’s early interest in folk-song, largely through the extensively reworked collection by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, Des Knabens Wunderhorn, found expression, partly account for the Fourth Symphony’s popularity today, and lesser conductors have been known to exploit this aspect to win over the public. This is to miss the essence of the symphony, and Levine, as one would expect from a musician of his integrity—not to mention his knowledge of Mahler—has no trouble resisting it. His approach was basically analytical, focused on the overall structure of the work and of each movement, as well as the interrelationship of sections and individual phrases, in which Mahler’s true intentions lie. Pauses, startling entrances, sudden outbursts weave a disturbing web of their own over the deceptively simple, “echt deutsche” Volkslieder. (And it is intriguing to note how Mahler, a Moravian Jew, who spent some of his career in Germany proper but much of it in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, obsessed about the music that had accrued around this key document of German nationalism. One especially important aspect of the Fourth is that it was the culmination of this path of interest. Beginning with the Fifth Symphony, the composer began to move in other directions.) If Levine’s interpretation recalls Otto Klemperer’s more angular analytical approach, it differs in its brilliant, varied tone palette and its enthusiastic lyrical effusions, which were so sensitively phrased and beautifully executed that they were genuinely moving. Levine grasped and held on to what was most modern and forward-looking in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, composed in the last year of the nineteenth century and finished in the first year of the twentieth. The performance was so committed and convincing that it reanimated my interested in the symphony, which I haven’t exactly been seeking out in recent years. I’d be surprised if this concert didn’t make it into Levine and the BSO’s now highly admired series of recordings, and I can’t wait to return to it in that form.

Des Knaben Wunderhorn, first edition, 1808
Des Knaben Wunderhorn, first edition, 1808

Renée Fleming sang Das himmlisch Leben” with the same rich tones she brought to the Strauss, although more brilliant and varied in color, as Mahler’s music demands. Nothing could be more different from Strauss’ economical elegies than Mahler’s inventive and fantastical folk-derivative. The naiveté of this traditional Bavarian poem can wear thin, as the movement progresses, but, as it culminates in a praise of music, we understand where Mahler’s truest faith lay, and the effect of the movement can be quite touching, as it was that Friday evening.

As he and Renée Fleming were showered with applause, Maestro Levine indulged in a nice gesture of his own: he held up Mahler’s score as the true object of adulation. A few days later I was fortunate enough to hear an equally refreshing performance of Mahler’s closely related Third Symphony with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Mariss Jansons…but that belongs to a separate review.

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