Two Concerts Reveal a Dramatic Shift Between Mahler Symphonies


Gustav Mahler had a near-death experience between the composition of his Fourth and Fifth symphonies. They were separated by a gulf that listeners could plunge into this week in consecutive concerts by the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

The Fourth was the third in a trilogy of symphonies that featured vocal settings of poetry from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” a folk collection that inspired Mahler, and it ends with a vision of heaven articulated by a soprano with childlike purity. The Fifth — which followed a hemorrhage that left Mahler bleeding out and on the verge of death — is a huge, bifurcated work, magnificently twisted in the Funeral March that opens it and cosmically buoyant in the finale.

At David Geffen Hall on Wednesday, Gianandrea Noseda led the Philharmonic in a performance of the Fourth that sidestepped its intriguing, hectoring mystery and embraced the more conventional aspects of its Romanticism. The cellos were broad and sinuous, and the violins sighed and shone in big, roomy gestures. The abrasive sound of a scordatura violin colors the second movement, but the concertmaster, Frank Huang, slyly played it straight, letting the instrument’s fiendish, squirrelly sound speak for itself.

The work’s emotional catharsis comes in the second half, and here Noseda jarred his audience awake with the Mahlerian climaxes that have a way of shaking listeners out of a daze — a shock, but an affirming one. Golda Schultz’s sparkly soprano was beautifully suited to the vocal solo in the final movement. Her absolute optimism was seemingly untouched by earthly matters. Noseda didn’t exactly reconcile the solo and the jangly orchestral interludes that separate its verses, but the Fourth can be impenetrable in that way.

Despite its elaborate structure of five movements in three sections and its prodigious length of 70 minutes, the Fifth is in some ways the more accessible piece, with its subjects of mortality and the good pain that comes with making oneself vulnerable to love. With the Fifth, Mahler moved away from programmatic or narrative conceptions of his work, but it’s incredibly tempting to map his autobiography to the piece: a macabre dream of his own death in the funeral march, and a love letter to his future wife, Alma, in the aching loveliness of the slow movement, the famous Adagietto.

The Met players and their music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a conductor who shapes scores with strength and decisiveness, are experts at underlining a specific emotional intention in grand-opera style. At Carnegie Hall on Thursday, they fared better in the large-format sentiment of the final two movements compared with the ever-shifting terrain of the first two, which require the virtuosity of making mercuriality sound organic.

In Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation, the Funeral March was more theatrical than grim, threaded with indecisive trumpet solos and an uneasy interaction between the movement’s martial and plaintive qualities. The horn player Brad Gemeinhardt anchored the Scherzo’s whirling dance with poetry and backbone.

The Met players settled confidently into the sentiment of the fourth and fifth movements. They sustained the melody of the poignant Adagietto with a glimmering tone, humbly colored in shades of gray, and leaned into the harmonic resolutions as though they were applying pressure to heartache in order to relieve it. The marvelous counterpoint of the fifth movement had dash, bustle and joy, but Nézet-Séguin’s handling of transitions didn’t necessarily convey the giddy sense of the counterpoint propelling the movement.

At the Philharmonic, the program was filled out with two Mozart pieces. The Piano Concerto No. 25 was here fast and punchy, with fullness rather than finesse, and fizzy strings, bullish horns and swooning woodwinds. The pianist Francesco Piemontesi, making his Philharmonic debut, matched Noseda’s rambunctious velocity, playing so quickly that the notes seemed to tumble upon one another. Outside a playful, nuanced cadenza, his sharp and quick technique didn’t provide much variety. Piemontesi joined Schultz for Mozart’s concert aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te?,” in which their duetting melodies honed Schultz’s dramatic focus.

The first half of the Met Orchestra’s concert included a somewhat bumpy reading of a fugue from Bach’s “Musical Offering,” in an instrumentation by Anton Webern. Nézet-Séguin’s emphasis seemed to be a fascinating interplay of instrumental colors rather than continuity in line. Then the wondrous soprano Lise Davidsen sang Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder,” drawing the biggest applause of the night with a plush, rosy dramatic sound.

Her voice has the depth of a well, resonant and endless, but it can still spin soft high notes. In her interpretation of these throbbing songs of forbidden love, she came from a place of clarity and equanimity rather than vexation and strife. The Met Orchestra, steeped in Wagner’s musical language, swelled and receded in sensual spasms, molding itself to her sound.

Mahler thought of his symphonies as entire worlds, and it was clear that the Philharmonic and the Met Orchestra lavished careful attention on them to navigate their craggy emotional landscapes. But when Davidsen sang her encore — “Dich, teure Halle” from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” — the splendor of her sound likewise conjured a world unto itself.



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