Salonen, MET Orchestra offer fine Schumann; soloists save anodyne Mahler

Sun Jun 04, 2017 at 12:20 pm
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the MET Orchestra in Schumann and Mahler Saturday afternoon.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the MET Orchestra in Schumann and Mahler Saturday afternoon.

By the quality of the playing that consistently rises from the pit at the Metropolitan Opera House, one would never know that the MET Orchestra is going through a period of transitional leadership, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin taking over as the new music director in 2020.

But Saturday’s Carnegie Hall concert, an atypical matinée, showed an unmoored ensemble. This is an excellent group of musicians, so the performance was in no way bad or unsatisfying, but under the caretaker leadership of Esa-Pekka Salonen, neither did it show any aesthetic focus or vision.

There was promise on paper; Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, “Rhenish,” and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, in the common vocal configuration of mezzo-soprano and tenor (Karen Cargill and Stuart Skelton).

The orchestra played Schumann like Schumann and Mahler like Schumann. That is, they played with great warmth and energy, fully committed to the music, but played the same way throughout the concert. This worked for the Third Symphony and didn’t quite work for Das Lied.

Schumann’s glowing, dignified symphony was wonderful, a straight-from-the-score performance. Music like this can speak for itself without much intervention. The orchestra was in full stride from the very beginning, giving a feeling of great reach and optimism to Schumann’s soaring melody. The multidimensional weight of the string section was such that it threatened to swamp the rest of the ensemble, including at times the horn section. But the verve, sweetness, and feeling as the players were putting out on Saturdayleft no complaints.

Schumann made his symphony with a combination of clearly delineated moods, one for each movement, and his typical, forward moving lyrical line, and a sense of momentum, even at slow tempos, is necessary. This is where the MET players excelled, with a dramatic sense of fate running through each movement, particularly in their moving expression of the tragic “Feierlich” movement, where Salonen made his mark. Content to maintain tempos and cue the sections while letting the orchestra play, in the slow movement he shaped a gradually rising dynamic and artfully weighted the textures.

The orchestra’s playing in the Mahler was no less fine nor involved, but they were missing a crucial element for a truly idiomatic performance—they played Mahler’s notes and expressive and technical instructions, but they didn’t touch on his world. The orchestra produced a fine sound, but nowhere near the array of colors, timbres, and hues that Mahler created. His spectrum was not only wider than any other composer, but he mixed colors, and jumped from one to another, in a way that is still unequalled.

That quality was just not there, although all the other playing was fine. The instrumental soloists were outstanding, most especially flutist Erik Gratton, whose solos in “Der Abschied” were gorgeously haunting.

Still this was a moving performance, because of the superb singing from Cargill and Skelton. The ease the tenor had in his part was immediately impressive, his voice rich and full even in the highest registers (where Mahler seems to want to put the singer under stress). There was a lived-in feeling to the ease with which he moved back and forth from sweetness to vehemence.

Cargill’s singing was sonically and expressively beautiful. The throaty contralto-like touch to her voice was exactly the color Mahler intended in the work. Her vibrato was unexpectedly affecting, not just an ornament but a way to modulate and shade her expression of the text—a profoundly Mahlerian approach.

In each of her movements, her vocal journey from darkness to light and from a spare to a rich line, was deeply musical. The modulation from foreboding to acceptance in “Der Abschied” was the epitome of great artistry. In the final bars, her voice hovered like a bright, comforting ripple over the gentle orchestral music, an intimation of heaven.

The MET Orchestra plays Mahler’s Blumine and Kindertotenlieder, and Sibelius’ Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 7, with violinist Christian Tetzlaff and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter 8 p.m. Tuesday.

One Response to “Salonen, MET Orchestra offer fine Schumann; soloists save anodyne Mahler”

  1. Posted Jun 05, 2017 at 2:16 am by Michael Sirotta

    My wife and I attended Saturday’s Met orchestra concert at Carnegie. I would like to take issue with some of Mr. Grella’s observations.

    We went away disappointed, not because of the orchestra’s playing, which was top notch, but because of the leadership.
    What was the rush? Did Maestro need to catch a flight or something.

    Frankly, I went to the concert to hear the Mahler. I’d heard the Schumann before, but had never paid much attention to it until now (bad reputation of Schumann’s attempts at orchestration?). In preparation for Saturday’s performance of it, I’d had been “deep” listening to the Barenboim recording of the Schumann with the Staatskapelle Berlin. I am now a complete fan of this work.

    Well, as Mr. Grella correctly states, Salonen drove through the movements “with a sense of momentum, even at slow tempos”. But for us, it was like a metronome was ticking. The reviewer praised this, but it left me exasperated. My wife felt the same without even having studied the piece in advance. Whether or not “not tampering with tempi” reflects a preference of hearing the work through more of a “classical” approach vs a “romantic” one (I’ve read somewhere that interpretations of Schumann’s symphonies are sometimes criticized according to those parameters), the brilliant interplay of thematic sections and polyphony, as well as some really gorgeous lyrical passages (even in the “Lebhaft” movements) requires, I think, more distinguishing treatment through the use of at least some liberties taken with tempi. To our ears, the whole thing was a monotone rush job. The performance needed to “breathe” more.

    Now to the Mahler. Here I come to more agreement with the reviewer. And I think what he feels lacking in the Mahler interpretation is the same thing that afflicts the Schumann: It didn’t “breathe” and hence, bring out that Mahlerian quality that Mr. Grella found lacking.

    I will take issue with one of Mr. Grella’s kudos in his review of the Mahler. The singers executed their roles well, but to me, Ms Cargill’s wide vibrati on her forte high notes I found grating and un-Mahler-like. I think Mahler preferred more simple angelic timbres from his soprani and/or mezzos. That loud vibrato to me distracts from the intent to present the heartfelt emotion of the words and instead focuses attention on the performer as “diva”.
    But maybe that’s just me. My wife didn’t mind.

    Anyway, kudos to the orchestra. Not so impressed with Mr. Salonen.

    Michael Sirotta

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