Garanča’s Mahler delves deep while Yannick’s Bruckner glitters with Met Orchestra

Sat Jun 15, 2019 at 1:12 pm
Elina Garanca performed Mahler's "Ruckert-Lieder" with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Met Orchestra Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Steve J. Sherman

Elina Garanča performed Mahler’s “Rückert-Lieder” with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Met Orchestra Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Steve J. Sherman

Following the applause that ended Friday night’s final season performance by the Met Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin apologized to the audience that they had not prepared an encore. Then he added that, for an encore, the audience should subscribe to the Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming season.

Likely many already had done so. The crowd seemed full of opera lovers eager to offer a supportive environment to the orchestra’s concert. That would explain the ecstatic ovations for a concert that never quite came together and offered modest satisfactions beneath its gleaming surface.

Two large, somber works made up the program: Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, sung by mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča, and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. The pairing came off as grand and handsome bookends on an empty shelf—surrounding the concert and hinting at what might be inside, without ever getting deeply into the music. In the first half, with Mahler’s songs, it took time for the orchestra to gel, while Bruckner’s seventh gelled too much.

The Rückert-Lieder appear with nowhere near the frequency of Mahler’s other song sets, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and the Kindertotenlieder. That’s a shame because both have a lighter touch and more sheer loveliness, while traversing broader and deeper emotional ground via more concentrated means.

The best known of the five songs is the middle one, “Um Mitternacht,” a dark-night-of-the-soul meditation. It was also an apex in the performance, and the point where the orchestra’s playing finally matched Garanča’s singing.

The mezzo-soprano delivered a consistently strong performance. While Mahler’s lowest notes fell just below her bottom register, for the most part she had the range and flexibility for the music,  with the weight placed at all the right parts. Garanča proved a sympathetic and rewarding Mahler interpreter, with a full sound, expressive range of colors and phrasing guided by directness and a fundamental simplicity.

With those qualities she stood out from the orchestra for most of the songs. One wondered why Nézet-Séguin’s accompaniment sounded so blunt behind her. The orchestra could not capture a convincing Mahler sound throughout most of the first three songs. The notes were there, but the blend wasn’t, and there was a disunity between sections and groups that didn’t honor Mahler’s orchestration. By itself, Pedro R. Diaz’s English horn playing was delicious, but he sounded oddly removed from the rest of the ensemble.

Things came fully together in the last two songs, “Liebst du um Schönheit” and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” where  the instrumental emulsification hit the right mix. At the end, the feeling was not that of a performance meriting the immediate, ostentatious “Brava!”—cluelessly shouted over the still-reverberating music—but of something solid and just decent enough.

From the opening string phrase in Bruckner’s Seventh, the Met orchestra showed their most beautiful sound; full and weighty, with rich colors ranging from black to bronze. The problem was that Nézet-Séguin seemed to be merely reveling in the sheer sonic plushness of tone rather than keeping a hand on the wheel.

The general knock on Bruckner is length and pace, that he doesn’t have the structural firmness for the music to be interesting across its long duration. But he does and it’s not the music that can fail but an interpretation like this. With an organized pulse and a steady flow, the 70 minutes of this symphony can feel exact and succinct, as was the case with the marvelous Lincoln Center performance by the Philharmonia under Esa Pekka-Salonen this past winter.

Nézet-Séguin got everything off on the wrong foot, and though there were excellent (and beautiful) moments, the music never found the right balance. The conductor manhandled the majestic opening theme—missing its strength and eloquence, and treating it as something overly precious, like a parent who won’t let their child play in the yard by herself.

His management of the dynamics that followed in the first movement and the rest of the symphony was excellent, meaningful and effecting, but it was not enough to bring Bruckner back from the mannered opening statement. The tempo was also drastically slow, near Adagio rather than the marked Allegro moderato, without any clear purpose.

The second movement also struggled to get off the ground for the same reasons—a lethargic tempo exacerbated by the micromanaged phrasing. The scherzo was lively, but here again Nézet-Séguin indulged in a deadly pace in the trio section.

There was plenty of sparkle and energy in the final movement, and the orchestra’s sound was wonderful. But, as in the Mahler, it was not quite the right Bruckner sound—polished to a high sheen and smoothed over where a touch of grain would better honor the composer’s rustic aesthetic. After the applause, the conductor mentioned it was the first time this orchestra had ever played a Bruckner symphony, and despite the technical skill and gleam, it showed.

5 Responses to “Garanča’s Mahler delves deep while Yannick’s Bruckner glitters with Met Orchestra”

  1. Posted Jun 16, 2019 at 8:19 am by chris

    The fact is that the Bruckner was one of the best performances that the Met Orchestra has given in recent years, despite negligible occurrences of flubs in the brass section and unequal textures in the strings.

    The cellos and the basses were most prominent, likely because Nezet-Seguin asked for it. The contrasts between the strings in the third movement highlighted the overarching cohesion in the orchestra’s performance, which evoked sonic qualities of chamber music in a repertoire that often sounds heavy handed in the wrong hands.

    To some critics, artistic choices such as these may be evidence of “precious” and “mannered” music making. This listener disagrees with such convenient criticism.

  2. Posted Jun 16, 2019 at 1:30 pm by Mark

    I don’t know what what concert you were at. I’ve never heard a better performance in my life.

  3. Posted Jun 17, 2019 at 3:16 pm by Chris Deile

    Interesting critique. Nice to see Elina Garanca had another good review. Disappointed to have missed this performance due to gall bladder surgery. Hopefully can see her in early 2020.

  4. Posted Jun 17, 2019 at 3:42 pm by James Leggio

    I attended this performance and have two comments to add.

    First of all, Mahler’s orchestration may not have seemed to fully bloom in this performance because YNS needed to hold down the instrumental volume so that Garanča could be heard. Her voice is beautiful but not large. The conductor’s solution here strikes me as far better than what happened last year when Simon Rattle brought the LSO to Geffen Hall for “Das Lied von der Erde” and baritone Christian Gerhaher was totally swamped by Rattle’s orchestral tidal wave.

    Second, I’ve heard many performances of the Bruckner 7th since I first encountered it live with the Boston Symphony and Klaus Tennstedt in 1978. YNS’s approach was well-proportioned and consistently interesting. It reminded me of what Carlo Maria Giulini once said in a radio interview : whatever you do with a Beethoven symphony, it will turn out all right, “But Bruckner needs my love.” Except for some bobbles in the punishing brass parts, this was an elegant, assured performance with a rich variety of textures, well-handled tempo changes, and a convincing overall arc. I was thrilled to be there.

  5. Posted Jun 18, 2019 at 8:31 pm by Sanford Friedman

    I do not pretend to be a scholar of music, but my wife and I for decades have yearly attended perhaps thirty performances a year of opera, symphony and chamber music in NYC. This review is typical of the pretentious, soulless puffery which misses the art. Bruckner is usually metallic, crisp, crystalline, spiraling

    And crashing. Mr Grella is correct that there was heavy emphasis on the cellos and base, but the net effect was to make Buckner less gothic, less heavenly and more human. The performance tugged at the heart strings in a Mahlerian fashion. But, the most important aspect of the performance was typical of what New York critics fail to report (fake news), i.e the thunderous, unanimous, spontaneous and persistent demonstration of love and appreciation by a packed audience. But hey, what do we know?

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