Mattei delivers revelatory singing in mixed Mahler program from Levine, MET Orchestra

Mon Dec 23, 2013 at 8:35 am
Peter Mattei performed Mahler's "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" Sunday with James Levine and the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

Peter Mattei performed Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” Sunday with James Levine and the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

James Levine received his accustomed hero’s welcome from the crowd at Carnegie Hall when he took the stage Sunday afternoon to lead his MET Orchestra in an all-Mahler concert. But baritone Peter Mattei, vocal soloist in Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, deserved the bulk of the applause. His singing in that small set of songs crowded out the other work on the program, the sprawling Symphony No. 7

The song cycle has been sung by many exceptional voices – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Thomas Hampson, Thomas Quasthoff, Gerald Finley – but Mattei’s performance surpasses them all. His sound was simply beautiful—clear and rounded with a full bloom in even the highest register, and perfect articulation.

Mattei’s singing was a masterful lesson in how musical command and technique take expression to depths that mannerism cannot approach. The Swedish baritone took a slightly ad libitum approach to his phrasing that complemented his easy, relaxed charisma; impetuosity combined with thoughtfulness. He seemed intuitively sympathetic to the essential details in Mahler’s music: rhythmic modulation, a pulse that comes out of physical movement and the value of a natural, human quality in singing.

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is music written by a young man that is about the kind of self-serious passions of young men, and older singers carry the quality of looking back on that long-ago part of their lives. Mattei is not a young man, but he convincingly embodied youth, the self-involvement and blithe confidence that comes from not knowing any better.

The cumulative effect of his singing was seductive and intense, and a subtle change he made at the end was that much more brilliant and powerful. In the last song, “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schats,” when he reached the lines that begin “Auf der Strasse stand ein Lindenbaum/da hab’ich zum ersten Mal im Schlaf geruht!” (“By the road stands a linden tree/Where at last I rested in sleep!”), he sang clearly and stolidly on each beat, the sound of youth falling away to bitter experience, of abandoned dreams.

The accompaniment from Levine and the musicians was on the same rarefied level. Every line, obbligato phrase, ringing chime, burst of energy from the woodwinds and brass was exquisitely crafted and polished. The orchestral colors were bright as neon but the hues were rich as oil paints.

If only the same were true for the second half. This was not a bad performance of Symphony No, 7 by any means, but a strangely monochromatic one and, after hearing the astonishing first half, a frustrating combination of excitement and disappointment.

Levine’s main idea was power. This was a big, loud, muscular take. It was undeniably thrilling to feel Mahler literally vibrating up through one’s feet, but there is so much to explore in this weird, marvelous symphony. This is the hardest piece in Mahler’s body of work to get a handle on, the standard approach of teasing out a narrative thread breaks apart as the five movements vary drastically in tone, style and form. The best interpretations—from Hermann Scherchen, Michael Gielen and Michael Tilson Thomas—take the common subtitle, “Song of the Night,” seriously and make the music sound like episodes from a dream, with their own strange logic.

Extroverted intensity is a valid way to look at the music, but that leaves so much by the wayside. The opening tempo was brisk, with a slightly aggressive edge to the playing, and Levine drove the music from there. The energy never flagged but wasn’t always directed constructively. There was little sense of the dance music hidden within the symphony, nor in all the marches.

And Levine showed little taste for the extraordinary atmospheres of the two “Nachtmusik” movements, nor the central scherzo that begins as a true nightmare and ends as a pastoral, until the dreamer falls out of bed. All the symphony’s transitions, with their magical expressive possibilities, were perfunctorily dismissed.

Unlike the first half, the orchestra sounded surprisingly rough. Stretches of high tempo playing in the first and last movements had the massed strings stumbling over each other at times. Balances were often crude, with either the strings or the gong crushing the rest of the ensemble. The brass section, with the exception of the tuba and tenor horn, had a difficult night, with clams, cracks and smears in every single movement. In the first movement’s reprise of the opening solo, the trombone was disconcertingly out of tune.

Criticism is superfluous to Levine’s adoring audience in New York. Yet this Mahler Seventh was a great disappointment, particularly after Mattei’s revelatory performance.

James Levine and the MET Orchestra return to Carnegie Hall 3 p.m. May 11 with an all Dvorak program featuring cellist Lynn Harrell.

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