Youthful Mozart, (Over-)Ripe Mahler from Andris Nelsons and the BSO, Daniel Lozakovich, Violin

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Arnold Böcklin, Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, oil on canvas, 1872, Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
Arnold Böcklin, Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, oil on canvas, 1872, Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Youthful Mozart, (Over-)Ripe Mahler
Tanglewood Music Shed: Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, conductor

Mozart, Violin Concerto no. 3 in G major K. 216
Daniel Lozakovich, violin soloist

Mahler, Symphony no. 4
Kristine Opolais, soprano

There seem to be two kinds of Mahler conductors: those who scrupulously adhere to the composer’s very detailed performing instructions, letting the score speak for itself, and those who add interpretive value to those instructions, prolonging ritards into moments of stasis, dwelling lovingly on details, pulling apart the inner workings of Mahler’s original harmonic language, and ecstatically prolonging climactic moments. To put the matter up front, I am a strong partisan of the first approach, and usually have a negative response to the second. I have been lucky enough to hear many great performances that fall into the first category. For the Fourth Symphony, my gold standard is George Szell, whose Cleveland Orchestra performance of 1963 with Judith Raskin was an early peak experience of concert-going, the recording of which is available on CD. Other fine recordings of this symphony that take a similar approach include those of Walter, Reiner, Abbado (earlier and later), Salonen, and Boulez.

In the second category, I include Bernstein (especially in his second set of recordings) who “channeled” Mahler while performing, thereby taking to himself any liberties that came to him; Mengelberg (who worked with Mahler); Ozawa (sometimes); and now Andris Nelsons. While the audience at Tanglewood responded very positively to Sunday’s performance, I was left with the feeling that I was listening to a different piece of music, one whose aesthetic values were not only unfamiliar (in itself not a bad thing) but at odds with the score. This is the closest Mahler came to writing a chamber symphony: there are no lower brasses, and the scoring is the most chamber-music-like and transparent of all the symphonies. It is also rhythmically one of the lightest on its feet; each movement is grounded in a clearly defined rhythmic flow which, despite disruptions typical of Mahler, reasserts itself and carries the themes and events along with a compelling momentum that reveals a classical sense of form and symmetry not typical of many of Mahler’s other symphonic movements.

Nelsons took a highly “interventionist” approach, manipulating the pulse at almost every moment, stretching ritards and fermatas close to the breaking point, and altering tempo in not very subtle ways to underscore new thematic ideas and textures. The result was a lack of flow, a feeling that each measure was a separate event—phrases tended to fall apart, and the sense throughout was of trying to dance with heavy feet. This seemed to be a corollary of an attempt to achieve a beefier string sound; but rather than attaining richness and vibrancy, the strings sounded clotted and colorless, an extraordinary turn-around for this orchestra which has a rich tradition of producing transparent and prismatic colors, particularly in the strings. That the orchestra has not lost this characteristic sound was apparent in the very modest but beautifully turned accompaniment to the Mozart concerto on the program, about which more later.

There is a rich literature about this symphony, which was produced as a kind of after-thought to the gargantuan Third; the song “Das himmlische Leben” which concludes it was at first intended as movement number seven for the Third, but Mahler wisely decided to build a separate work around it. It pre-existed as part of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn cycle, where it was paired with the song “Das irdische Leben.” The strange lyrics describing a child’s view of heaven is mostly about food and, finally, about music. One of the most interesting commentaries is by Raymond Knapp in an article entitled “Suffering Children: Perspective on Innocence and Vulnerability in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.”1 It builds a convincing if unusual case that the song is offered from the perspective of a starving child as a kind of hunger-induced hallucinatory fantasy. Rather than seeing the symphony as a pure fairy-tale, this view (rightly or wrongly) indicates the complex tension between the innocence and religious faith of the child and the harsh forces that, particularly in German fairy-tales, put innocence and faith to the test. Along with the text of the last movement, Knapp calls attention to the diabolical fiddling of the second movement, which Mahler originally entitled “Freund Hain spielt zum Tanz auf; der Tod streicht recht absonderlich die Fiedel und geigt uns in den Himmel hinauf.” (Friend Hain strikes up the dance; Death bows the fiddle quite strangely and fiddles us up to Heaven.)—Freund Hain being a nick-name for Death, especially as portrayed by Arnold Böcklin in a painting Mahler was influenced by while composing the movement, according to the testimony of his wife Alma.

It is not necessary for an interpretation of the symphony to lay out these programmatic possibilities, but it is important for the performers to have a point of view about the “meaning” of the disruptions (for example, the sleighbells that intrude throughout the first and last movements—an unusual enough sound to require an interpretive stance) and grotesqueries that abound (for example, the mistuned solo violin in the second movement). Rather than pointing up these contradictory elements, Nelsons’ reading absorbed them into a rather bland and sentimentalized continuum. The project of making Mahler’s music “beautiful” manifested in a slow movement that was severely distended; I didn’t time it, but in comparing it to some representative recordings, it was clear that Nelsons did not provide the tempo contrasts that are crucial to shaping this movement into an emotionally varied experience. (Recorded performances vary between a faster but satisfying (and unhurried) 17:34 from Bruno Walter, who was Mahler’s assistant in Vienna, to the very slow Tilson Thomas clocking in at 25:27: a difference of almost eight minutes! Nelsons dragged the tempo and seemed to bring the music to an almost dead stop repeatedly—the contrasting faster episodes barely registered. My guess is that he would clock in at the slow end of the continuum.)

Kristine Opolais performs with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony. Photo Hilary Scott.
Kristine Opolais performs with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony. Photo Hilary Scott.

Finally, the use of the voice in the last movement also speaks to the performers’ understanding of who is singing and what their stance is toward the words. Kristine Opolais has a pleasant if not spectacular voice, but did not seem to settle on who she was in relation to this text and music. There were individual notes that seemed to seek a boy soprano sound; Mahler originally intended this movement for that voice and Bernstein’s second recording actually used such a singer. But these were isolated instances; at other times, Opolais went for a richer, throaty and vibrato-laden sound that veered toward operatic delivery, as if a mature older person were offering a commentary on this “child’s vision” while standing outside it. Missing was a core attitude: the best performances project a simple, innocent sense of wonder at this heavenly vision, even with its elements of saints slaughtering animals and baking bread. A unified approach is needed to bring us into the singer’s perspective and framework, and this has been best supplied by singers like Bernstein’s Reri Grist or Szell’s Judith Raskin who keep the vocal delivery simple and fresh rather than knowing and overly-sophisticated.

Daniel Lozakovich performs with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony. Photo Hilary Scott.
Daniel Lozakovich performs with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony. Photo Hilary Scott.

The opening work on the program provided an object lesson in freshness and simplicity. Mozart’s violin concerto is full of artful touches, but they are not foregrounded in a self-conscious way; the same can be said of sixteen-year-old Daniel Lozakovich’s performance. Mozart wrote the concerto at age nineteen; it was an important step forward in the development of his concerto voice compared to the previous work, Concerto no. 2 (K. 211).  The melodic flow and formal ingenuity are here more engaging and offer novelty to keep listeners alert, such as the metric and tempo shifts in the last movement, as well as the harmonic surprises and feints that provide satisfying “aha” moments. This work is, of course, very familiar and yet it is not offered that frequently on concerts such as this—it does not provide the usual red meat of virtuoso display that soloists use to display their technical bona fides. Lozakovich did not need to do so, even though he followed up with an encore, Fritz Kreisler’s “Recitative and Scherzo Caprice,” to satisfy the most carnivorous audience. This young-looking teen-ager provided in his Mozart what was lacking in the Mahler performance: a sense of ease, simplicity, and a pleasure in music-making that allowed us to rediscover a familiar but wonderful work. His gestures and sound were completely relaxed and also impeccable, his demeanor in interacting with the orchestra was joyful (reminding me a bit of the way Gil Shaham played Tchaikovsky last summer with the TMC Orchestra) and his understanding of Mozart’s line and sonority left nothing to be desired.  There was nothing arrogant or needlessly formal in his bearing—he looked like a kid having a great time; and so did the rest of us.

  1. 19th-Century Music, vol. 22, no. 3 (Spring, 1999), pp. 233-267.

1 thought on “Youthful Mozart, (Over-)Ripe Mahler from Andris Nelsons and the BSO, Daniel Lozakovich, Violin

  1. right on. you might also have mentioned the distinctly nondiabolical freund hain solos.

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