A universe in music

Monday, July 14
LENOX — For a composer who left detailed instructions in his scores, Mahler certainly invites variations in interpretation.

Case in point: the Resurrection Symphony, which Bernard Haitink conducted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood Saturday night. The modern touchstone is Leonard Bernstein's performance, a neurotic's take on a neurotic's music, making the whole world seem gloriously obsessed. Seiji Ozawa, who in 2006 conducted Tanglewood's last previous performance, delivered power without neurosis.

Then there's Haitink, who took a refreshingly cleansing, healthy approach to the 90 minutes of death and transcendence, of mystery and whimsy, of bird warblings, offstage brass fanfares, swooning strings and thunderclaps of sound.

Some performances — Bernstein's and Ozawa's, for example — go in for shock. Haitink built steadily, cumulatively to the grand climax when the orchestra and chorus are going full blast and the whole wondrous mechanism lifts off to heaven.

Mahler's famous dictum that a symphony should be a universe was never better illustrated than in his Second. From an opening funeral march, it progresses through a country dance, an ironic cuckoo vs. nightingale contest and an evocation of primal light, coming finally to the long, winding ascent from apocalypse to heaven.

The BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus responded superbly to Haitink's leadership. The Old World values of grace and dignity (if one may speak of them anymore) shine through in this Dutch master's work.

Those virtues plus urgency marked the thrilling singing of Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotjin, a Haitink discovery, in the "Urlicht" ("Primal Light") movement and the finale's pleas for deliverance. These were cries from a believer's heart. Heidi Grant Murphy, who had been effective in the soprano's part in the past, seemed overmastered this time.

Haitink's command of tempo and structure was one thing. His attention to detail was another. Right at the start, the double basses' pursuit of their own grumbling argument stood out against - and thus heightened - the rest of the orchestra's immersion in funeral music.

Throughout, subtle touches of portamento, the slides from note to note common in Mahler's time, added character to the string playing. After the simpler, more reflective middle movements, the shattering outburst (with a nod to the Beethoven Ninth) that began the resurrection finale came like a thunderbolt from Zeus. The movement is too long and there were minor lapses in the playing. So what?

John Oliver's festival chorus was made to sing music like this. The magical first entrance of the chorus, embracing resurrection, came through in an awed hush. When the roof blew off in the ending, the large audience, deprived of opportunities for applause between linked movements, erupted.

James Levine was missing but his spirit lived on.

The first Levine replacement, BSO assistant conductor Julian Kuerti, took the podium yesterday afternoon in his Tanglewood debut. A student here in 2005, he looked like the young Simon Rattle as he swiveled and scooped before a small orchestra in pieces by Haydn, Bach, Mozart and Schubert.

This was an impressive start. In broad outline, the Canadian native shaped two symphonies and two piano accompaniments well, leaving nuances to be filled in later. He gave the impression that he was trying too hard, micro-managing the playing.

Both Haydn's late Symphony No. 104, "London," and Schubert's early Symphony No. 4, "Tragic" (but not very), sounded driven, although Kuerti had fun with the rolling middle section of both minuet movements. The BSO responded dutifully. Kuerti probably has to learn to trust the orchestra more, to let experienced players give him as much input as output.

Peter Serkin was the piano soloist in Bach's Concerto in D minor and Mozart's Concert Rondo, K. 382.

Always on the lookout for fresher or deeper avenues of expression, Serkin came up with the idea of using variant versions of the first and last movements of this familiar concerto.

It was hard to see what was gained, except maybe musicologically.

The two movements, according to the program notes, were derived from Bach's Cantatas Nos. 146 and 188, which share some of the concerto's musical material. Bach himself was said to have played the first movement as an organ concerto to open No. 146.

The keyboard part in both movements became more elaborate than in the standard version, with the first movement's rapid, filigreed figures suggesting their organ origin. On the piano, they seemed to rattle on rather pointlessly.

Nor did Serkin's crisp, understated but intelligent playing match up well with the broader lines of the accompaniment. The adagio, taken slowly and freely, seemed more like a meditation on Bach than Bach himself.

As a sort of encore, Serkin returned after intermission to play the Mozart rondo, which was originally the finale of a concerto. It's early-Mozart fluff but Serkin made the most of its charms, such as they are.

Another large audience responded enthusiastically, though there was a sizable exodus after Serkin completed his stint.

In the Shed's rafters, the resident starlings squawked their approval.


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