BERIO AND MAHLER IN INCANDESCENT PERFORMANCES
By Lawrence Budmen
While Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and Luciano Berio (1925-2003) lived and worked in very different eras, both left an indelible mark on the history of music. Both composers expanded the range and expressive possibilities of orchestral music. Both experimented with the panoply of sounds modern instruments could produce. Indeed both men were musical revolutionaries. After Mahler and Berio, orchestral composition would never be the same. Yet these creative artists had great reverence for the music of the past. Mahler and Berio adapted and reinvented the music of past masters. It is no accident that both composers were also important conductors. Their work on the podium enriched their creative inspiration. The music of Franz Schubert fueled both composers' curatorial spirit. On January 31, 2004 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, the New World Symphony presented a concert of works by Mahler and Berio (with a few soft tones from Schubert) - landmarks in the evolution of serious music.
Mahler's "Symphony No.5 in C-Sharp Minor" was a product of Mahler's summers on the south shore of the Worthersee in southern Austria in 1901 and 1902. While the composer's three previous symphonies employed vocal parts to expand the musical structure, the fifth symphony marked a return to a purely orchestral essay. From the solemn trumpet fanfare of the opening funeral march to the joyous horn calls of the conclusion seventy five minutes later, the symphony reflects Mahler's emotional journey from darkness to light. Michael Tilson Thomas is one of the world's great Mahler conductors. His ongoing series of Mahler symphony recordings with the San Francisco Symphony are superb. He brought an emotional fervor and idiomatic mastery to the symphony that stamped this performance as a" true artistic event." In the ominous funeral march that opens the symphony, Tilson Thomas accentuated the tread of the repeated musical figure in the cellos and basses - a detail that gets lost in most performances. The first three movements of the symphony are infused with echoes of the Viennese landler and the Jewish klezmer band - the music of Mahler's youth. The New World's wonderful wind section tossed off the slides and euphoric klezmer bursts of color with snappy pizzazz. The terrifying anger of the second movement was vividly evoked. The rich, almost Viennese string sound brought an autumnal glow to the landler dances of the Scherzo. Rarely has the eerie charm of this movement been so well served. Tilson Thomas's unerring sense of pace and flow infused every bar of this massive score. A small detail like the plucked strings in the Scherzo made a telling effect.
The heartbreaking intensity of the Adagietto glowed in tones of amber beauty. The incandescent sound of the strings with exquisite harp resonated with overwhelming emotional passion. Rarely has Mahler's love music sounded so poignant and powerful. The brilliant New World horns heralded the Rondo Finale: Allegro. The unflagging rhythmic precision of the orchestra's strings was awesome. Mahler's fugal writing was articulated with x-ray like clarity. The final grand outburst of the brass was really glorious. Tilson Thomas captured a plethora of emotional nuances that marked the composer's neurotic journey from despair to hope. The orchestra rose to the occasion with brilliant, virtuosic playing. This was not the work of a training orchestra but of splendidly gifted young professionals. Tilson Thomas led the kind of inspired Mahler performance music lovers only dream about.
Unfortunately a small minority of the audience did not seem to believe they needed to respect the efforts of these talented artists. People walked in and out of the Lincoln Theater auditorium repeatedly during the performance. There was loud, unrestrained coughing - often during the symphony's quietist passages. At the beginning of the Adagietto (as this rude behavior worsened), Tilson Thomas stopped the orchestra, threw his baton to the floor (breaking it), and stormed off stage. He eventually returned and beseeched the audience to respect the hard work and devotion that his players were bringing to the music. In a statement issued by the orchestra, Tilson Thomas noted that the audience must collaborate with the artists to share a true musical experience. The majority of the audience realized that one of the great Mahler interpreters was in their midst and rewarded the conductor and his dedicated musicians with a richly deserved standing, cheering ovation at the symphony's conclusion.
Mahler made an orchestral transcription of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet which violinist-conductor Joshua Bell has recently revived with England's Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra. Luciano Berio was also inspired by Schubert's sublime music. Berio's "Rendering" (a 1989-90 commission from Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) is based on sketches the 31 year old Schubert made in the last weeks of his life - the outline of a Tenth Symphony in D Major. Berio's restoration (and orchestration) of this material reveals Schubert contemplating a grandly romantic, post Beethoven symphony. The powerful opening of the first movement Allegro is almost Brahmsian in stature. The beautiful melody of the Andante is evocative of the magical slow movements of Mahler and Bruckner. The soaring thematic motif of the finale is infused with an almost 20th century aura - Hindemith (of "Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Weber") or Stravinsky (of "Pulcinella"). Berio's superbly crafted orchestration gives musical life and coherence to these extraordinary musical episodes. To connect the sketches, Berio composed softly mysterious ruminations on themes from the symphony as well as Schubert's "Piano Sonata in B-flat" and "Piano Trio in B-flat." These pianissimo interjections are marked by the gentle sound of the celesta. It is as if Schubert's final divine inspiration is being viewed through a hazy, late 20th century prism.
Tilson Thomas elicited a sparkling performance from his dedicated players. (Berio and Tilson Thomas were longtime friends and artistic collaborators which was evident in the exuberance of this performance.) The beautifully balanced wind and string textures in the Andante were absolutely exquisite. The clarion horns in the striking finale were wonderfully sonorous. Berio's remarkable illumination of Schubert was given a bright, crisp realization. Splendid orchestral playing!
The combination of Berio and Mahler masterpieces was inspired programming - the work of two musical giants under the baton of one of their most fervent advocates. The New World Symphony will repeat this program during its residency at the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, Italy on February 8-13, 2004. Bon voyage!