In Mahler, Morlot Triumphs with Quietude

United StatesUnited States Berg and Mahler: Veronika Eberle (violin), Donatienne Michel-Dansac (soprano), Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 29.11.2012 (BJ)

Berg: Violin Concerto
Mahler: Symphony No. 4

Every conductor these days seems to feel the need to measure himself against the challenge of Mahler’s symphonies. The task is to create a coherent unity from the dizzying multiplicity of ideas that the composer—more prodigal and less disciplined than, say, Beethoven or Brahms—has thrown down for him to make sense of.

On 29 November at Benaroya Hall it was Ludovic Morlot’s turn to face that challenge, and he rose to it superbly. In one respect, the Fourth Symphony is perhaps the least problematic of the ten (or eleven, counting Das Lied von der Erde): it is the only symphony that Mahler scored for relatively modest orchestral forces, omitting trombones and tuba, so the physical scale of the sound is easier to bring into cohesion.

Yet the very delicacy of the writing presents its own challenge. And aside from the leisured ease of his tempos, and the subtlety with which he bent them in response to every expressive demand, it was Morlot’s command of the pianissimo end of the dynamic range that impressed most. Oh, yes, the occasional big outbursts of orchestral exuberance were given their due. But what really enthralled me about this performance was the sheer, stunning hush that dominated so much of it, even managing to survive some stentorian coughs from audience members at the most ravishing moments of the slow movement.

The orchestra—once again, I was glad to see, seated with the two violin sections divided to left and right of the conductor—responded to Morlot’s leadership with some equally fine playing. The woodwinds were polished and expressive, David Gordon’s trumpet sallies were brilliantly projected, and Mark Robbins contributed some uncommonly delicate horn solos. The strings were by turns crisp and velvety. Concertmaster Alexander Velinzon caressed his solos lovingly, while not yielding to the temptation to soften the deliberately coarse effect of the mis-tuned second solo violin called for in the scherzo. One passage in that movement fell a little short of the irresistible Viennese lilt that Leonard Bernstein imparted to it—but I have never heard any other conductor quite rival Bernstein in that regard, so it would be unreasonable to take Morlot to task for such a momentary disappointment.

Only the soprano soloist in the last movement fell below the quality of the rest. Donatienne Michel-Dansac has reportedly enjoyed great success with contemporary music, but in this context her often questionable intonation was a distinct liability, and her tone, a few beautifully turned phrases aside, was seriously lacking in body. I suspect that a certain physical tension in her posture may be the culprit; she would be well advised to stand still and eschew the sort of bodily contortions that must have affected her vocal production.

The evening’s other guest soloist, Veronika Eberle, had enjoyed a highly successful local debut in coping with the fearsome technical demands of Berg’s Violin Concerto and making often lovely music in the process. Not yet 24, Ms. Eberle may well be the next big thing to have arrived on the German solo-violin scene, after Julia Fischer, who is five years older.

There is a certain neurasthenic element in the piece, but, without shortchanging its dramatic tension, Morlot was as convincing in highlighting its bucolic aspect as he was in evoking Mahlerian delicacy after intermission.

Bernard Jacobson

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.