Concert review: Ride with Mahler gets rather bumpy

Monday July 12, 2010

LENOX - Tanglewood's driveways are sporting new yellow and black speed bumps this year. They seem an apt metaphor for the Boston Symphony Orchestra's opening- night performance of Mahler's " Resurrection" Symphony on Friday under Michael Tilson Thomas. The symphony barreled along until it hit the brakes and came to a near-stop, then rolled slowly along.

The weekend produced some great performances but this, alas, was not one of them.

Tilson Thomas seemed an ideal substitute for the convalescing James Levine at his opening concerts. The '68 and '69 Tanglewood graduate has made a specialty of the Mahler symphonies with his San Francisco Symphony, recording the whole set to general acclaim.

But on a warm night, this performance of the Second was a continent away from Levine's more measured, though no less visceral, approach. It was closer in spirit to Tilson Thomas' friend Leonard Bernstein but lacked Bernstein's structural coherence and molded sound.

With his own orchestra, or with more BSO rehearsal time, Tilson Thomas might have made his conception seem less idiosyncratic. The BSO's playing was committed but seemed pressed to keep up with a visiting conductor swirling, stabbing demands.

Mahler's Second begins with a funeral march and climaxes in a heaven- shaking promise of redemption and resurrection. How different from the late Mahler who, in the Ninth Symphony and " Song of the Earth," resigns himself to death. Such is the difference between youth and age.

That difference also showed in the evening's two vocal soloists.

Mezzo- soprano Stephanie Blythe, at the height of her career, brought an opulent voice and a believer's intensity to her two big moments, including the rapt "Urlicht" ("Primal Light") at the heart of the symphony. Soprano Layla Claire's youthful voice simply didn't carry far enough into the Shed to be heard well.

Tilson Thomas' outlook veered toward extremes. On the one hand was the violence, bordering on chaos, in such passages as the finale's orchestral introduction. On the other hand was the unusually slow buildup of the choral passages that follow.

It could be that the conductor was trying to get at the music's Jewish- East European content. Some listeners might find this kind of Mahler exciting - certainly, the wildly cheering audience did. But a new perspective doesn't guarantee a rounded view. Mahler has enough built-in drama so that any superimposed drama can seem overkill.

From its hushed first entry - one of the most stunning moments in all music - the Tanglewood Festival Chorus rose to almighty thunder in the concluding ode. Tilson Thomas employed the orchestral seating of Mahler's time - also favored by Levine - with the violin sections divided. He called for a fair amount of Mahler portamento, the slides from note to note in the strings.

A shuttle of offstage brass players wakened earth and heaven with their summonses, but there was no organ - at least none that could be heard - to reinforce the final affirmation.

A conductor of a different persuasion, Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos, took charge Saturday and Sunday, getting more consistent, even inspired results. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony rolled along on an irresistible tide, and Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben" produced a glorious racket that made a virtue of the composer's self-glorification.

The all- Beethoven program Saturday night featured the debut of Gerhard Oppitz as soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 3. The program notes described the German pianist as an airplane pilot and restaurant maven.

In restaurant terms, give him five stars.

There was virtuosity aplenty in his playing, but more conspicuous was the probity and clarity. The long first- movement cadenza was wondrous for its subtlety and sweep, but no more wondrous than the largo for its introspective shaping and shading. Under Fruehbeck, the BSO gave as good as it got.

The program opened with a Beethoven rarity, the " King Stephen" Overture, which frolics along with hints of Hungary. It was fun for a change, but that Beethoven Fifth was something else. This was no longer the tired warhorse, but an incandescent forging of music from the essence of Beethoven. With nothing to prove but the greatness of the music, Fruehbeck heightened the sense of inevitability by linking all four movements.

The Spanish conductor, a BSO favorite, repeated the feat Sunday afternoon with "Ein Heldenleben" ("A Hero's Life"), Strauss' paean to himself. This is an orchestral showpiece, and Fruehbeck had the BSO playing at its virtuoso best. There was bombast here, but bombast that became exhilarating music.

The battle scene, where the hero vanquishes his nattering enemies, rose to epic proportions, as if the whole of Napoleon's army was invading.

The sheer absurdity of it made this hero endearingly ridiculous.

Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe's lengthy violin solos put endearment into the hero's portrayal of his beloved.

Pinchas Zukerman was the soloist in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5, his plush tones and flowing lines coating Mozart in honey. The BSO accompanied faithfully. Mozart's cheery "Serenata notturna" opened the program, affording lively solo opportunities for violinists Lowe and Haldan Martinson, violist Steven Ansell and bassist Edwin Barker, with an assist from timpanist Timothy Genis.


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