Years ago, a musician friend of mine gave an interview on Czech radio. He mentioned the Big Three among Czech composers: Dvorak, Smetana, and Janacek. The interviewer was nonplussed. “There are four,” he said.
Now it was my friend’s turn to be nonplussed. Who was the fourth? “Mahler,” said the interviewer, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
Ideas of national, racial, and ethnic identity can be fascinating. (Gustav Mahler was born in Bohemia, quite true. His family belonged to a Jewish, German-speaking minority. By the time he was fifteen, Gustav was studying in Vienna, where he would become a pillar of the cultural and artistic establishment.)
Yesterday afternoon, the Czech Philharmonic played Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” in Carnegie Hall. The orchestra, like the country itself, is marking the hundredth anniversary of Czech independence. On the podium was the orchestra’s music director, Semyon Bychkov, who took the reins this season. Born in the Soviet Union, he had his first job in my home state of Michigan: Grand Rapids.
Five months ago, Bychkov led one of the best performances of the Shostakovich Fifth that I have ever heard (which is saying something). That was with the New York Philharmonic. (For my review, published on this blog, go here.)
With the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov conducted two concerts at Carnegie Hall, the first of them on Saturday night. On the program that evening were two works by Dvorak: the Cello Concerto and the Symphony No. 7. I will discuss this concert in my upcoming “chronicle” for the magazine.
Now to yesterday afternoon, which brought just the one work, the Mahler Second (but what a work!). In the first movement, the orchestra was uncommonly clear. You could have written down the score, from what they played. There were some wrong notes, sure—but this was a live performance, not a studio recording. Also, the orchestra was unusually light in texture. (The same was true in the two Dvorak works the night before.) I rather appreciated this unheaviness, if you will.
The third movement, a scherzo, contains some of the most Jewish music Mahler ever wrote. You can overdo this aspect or underdo it. Bychkov did it “just right.”
Maestro Bychkov was brisk in this first movement. He did not linger over Mahler’s phrases and ideas. He did not do much savoring or reveling. Well and good. But the music did not have its spirituality, I found, and was surprisingly unmoving.
At the end, the pizzicatos were almost together. Is it asking too much that they be together? In my experience, over several decades now, yes.
The opening of the second movement, too, was almost together. I wish that Bychkov and the orchestra could have had a do-over. But the movement went well thereafter. The playing was warm and graceful, and, where appropriate, puckish. There was more portamento than you normally hear, and it was tasteful portamento, giving us some especially sweet sighing. The pizzicatos at the end were pretty much—pretty much—together.
On Saturday night, the Dvorak night, the timpanist was outstanding. And Mahler’s third movement began with some very, very good timpani playing. The rhythm was arresting, jolting.
This movement, a scherzo, contains some of the most Jewish music Mahler ever wrote. You can overdo this aspect or underdo it. I thought Bychkov did it “just right,” as they say in the Goldilocks tale.
The performance took on a very special character when the mezzo-soprano opened her mouth. That was Elisabeth Kulman, an Austrian. She began the fourth movement—the “Urlicht”—softly, naturally, and matter-of-factly. She was not “intoning,” as other mezzos or contraltos do. She was just singing, as she might in her own bedroom. And she continued in this vein, largely.
She never “tried” to do anything. She did not expend any effort. She just sang—and this singing was beautiful, kind, and guileless. There was a time, later in the symphony, when I would have asked for more sound from her. But I would not have traded her other qualities for sound. I have never heard a more effective singer in this symphony, of a great many.
Her soprano partner, so to speak, was Christiane Karg, a German who is well-known at the Salzburg Festival. She sang her lines with the right blend of purity and emotion.
There is a choir too, isn’t there? Oh, yes—and it was the Prague Philharmonic Choir. Was it worth bringing them over here, with the orchestra, which must have meant a considerable expense? I think so. This group was warm, alert, and mainly accurate.
In the fifth movement—which has too many sections to be thought of properly as a “movement,” I think—Bychkov got some unusual articulation. It came in the woodwinds, the brass, and the strings. In other words, it was all over. I might mention, too, that a chorale in the low brass was tremendously filling.
Some of the climaxes were fantastic. I think, in particular, of one generated in the percussion. It all leads up to “ja aufersteh’n”—“yes, rise again”—the Greatest Moment in All of Music. Would I have led up to it the way Bychkov did? No. He was a little too halting, and a little too calculating, for my taste. But he knew what he wanted, and he got it from the forces before him, and the climax—the ultimate one—had its effect.
Its full effect? I must admit I was a little dry-eyed. But perhaps others in the hall were not.
In any case, when the symphony was over, I remarked to the friend sitting next to me, “Just the greatest thing ever written, no big deal.” Is it? Is Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony the greatest thing ever written? I was being hyperbolic, of course, as I was a couple of paragraphs above. Still: there is a case.