Mahler With a Side of Haydn: Munich Philharmonic & Juraj Valcuha

Mahler, Haydn: Munich Philharmonic, Juraj Valcuha (conductor) Philharmonie Gasteig, Munich, 25.6.2011 (JFL)

Mahler: Symphony No.5
Haydn: Symphony No.44

Only because the beauty of Haydn’s 44th Symphony cannot be completely spoiled by an under-rehearsed, under-enthused performance, that doesn’t mean it ought to be performed that way. Not even if it serves as the ‘throw-away overture’ ahead of Mahler’s top-billed Fifth Symphony. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’d be better to have no Haydn at all than loveless Haydn… after all, any Haydn is good for the orchestra. (Just not necessarily for the audience.) And one ought to be glad any Haydn is played at all these days, especially by the large symphonic and philharmonic orchestras.

While every conductor will extol how greatly important and splendiferous Haydn is—musically and for tuning orchestras—no one does much about it. (See also: Why Haydn Should be Mandatory) The more lacking the performances are, the fewer the arguments in favor of putting more Haydn on the program, of course. Haydn is terribly difficult to pull off well and won’t delight listeners as much as he could if he is dispensed with carelessly in a ‘good-enough’ fashion, with a general pleasantry and ‘niceness’ about it. When an orchestra is careless about Haydn, and sticks him in the also-run spot on the program, it sends an ultimately self-reinforcing message to the audience. Haydn belongs on the top of the bill, which is to say at the end of the concert to signify his importance to musicians and listeners alike. And he needs to be done over and over again (there are enough symphonies to chose from), and not just by the occasional stop-over of an early-music specialist.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.5,
V.Neumann / Leipzig Gewandhaus
Brilliant / Berlin Classics

With these more general remarks on the state of ‘classical-classical’ music out of the way, it’s good to note that the Munich Philharmonic programmed Haydn’s 44th Symphony at all, and that the young non-specialist conductor Juraj Valcuha conducted it. But it was in the typical ‘throw-away-symphony’ setup, that the Haydn was performed, and rehearsal-time allocation spoke loudly to what was important that night, and what not. With the result on the first night reported to have been somewhere between less-than-ideal and downright pointless, the Haydn on the second night had a good deal of merit. The first movement, with robust oomph and drive, succeeded on its own terms (which a philharmonic orchestra obviously ought to retain; there’s no point pretending to be a 20-piece HIP band). The second movement might have been a touch too heavy on the lachrymose for a “Menuetto – Allegretto” (even for a Symphony nicknamed “Mourning”), and the third movement (Adagio) ought to have been infused with more life, but the fourth movement (Presto) constituted a perfectly plausible big-boned storm. The whole thing was far from perfect, but perfectly enjoyable. A good omen, perhaps, for the next concert when early-music specialist Ton Koopman makes a stop-over with more Haydn, and Bach, and Mozart. (July 11th through 13th)

Studded with young academy players (a great means against bored, routine playing), the Munich Philharmonic then set upon Mahler’s Fifth—only four days after having played four consecutive performances of Mahler’s taxing Seventh. Juraj Valcuha, the 34 year old principal conductor of Turin’s RAI National Symphony Orchestra, has been much fêted by the Munich Philharmonic this season, being assigned a New Year’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth and now the 2010/11 season’s last Mahler performance.

Whether fluke or genius was involved, the result in Mahler sounded like that greatest accomplishment in art: utter artlessness. An orchestra need not necessarily know why they’re doing what they are doing, nor feel their interpretation to be natural for matters to come together… and together it all came. Covered by a slightly homogenizing acoustic haze that nicely covered up infelicities and the occasional lack of cohesion, the result pleased with its organic, inconspicuously natural way—very much in contrast to the dazzling and brilliant ‘concerto for orchestra’ approach in which the New York Philharmonic’s Fifth in Leipzig was held. That said, Jörg Brückner’s horn solo was terrific and impressive in every way; secure and seemingly effortless even at the lowest dynamic levels. The lilt of the Scherzo was ingratiating with its fine terracing and the reoccurring deliberate tempo reductions. Artlessness particularly reigned in the Adagietto; neither milked for effect nor rushed to self-consciously avoid looking like one is milking it for effect. Sassy woodwind work sweetened the finale with the tempo (at last) picking up a swift pace that flowed nicely to the climax of the finale.

This was perhaps ‘incidental excellence’, less dependent on the musical leadership than on orchestral instinct, and it might have sounded just as fine with more rehearsal going toward Haydn… but for the listener it matters not how the sausage was made, only that it was—in this case—sound and good.

Jens F. Laurson