Morlot Masters Mahler in Riveting Sixth Symphony

United StatesUnited StatesBoulez and Mahler: Kimberly Russ (piano), Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 7.11.2013 (BJ)

Boulez: Notations I-IV
Mahler: Symphony No. 6

This performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony in Benaroya Hall reminded me of a particular one I heard many years ago: it was so different.

The worst thing that can happen in a performance is nothing. “Nothing” was exactly what happened back then: there was no incident, no nuance, no drama, no emotional impact—just wooden, characterless routine from first note to last. And in sharp contrast, everything that was missing in that remembered non-event was triumphantly realized in Ludovic Morlot’s riveting account of the symphony on 7 November. It was a veritable festival of crisply focused detail, vividly projected emotion, and subtle dynamic and textural shading, all coalescing in a totality of cataclysmic power.

“Festival” is not a word that comes readily to mind in considering this, the most direct and uncompromising of Mahler’s symphonies in its grim emotional outcry. There is relatively little here of the quasi-Brechtian alienation effect that makes so much of the composer’s music sound almost like self-quotation rather than unmediated self-expression.

Like Shostakovich a generation or so later, Mahler tends often to wear his heart on his sleeve—and then to hang his jacket up on a hook so that no one should suspect that the heart on display is his. But in the case of the Sixth Symphony the responsibility for all the breast-beating and the exploitation of extreme sonorities and extreme dynamics for expressive purposes is squarely accepted. This, we have to feel, is Mahler as he lived and breathed.

The virtues of Morlot’s interpretation began with the lean and incisive sonorities he etched from the start. Every shade of color was extracted from the huge orchestral forces, and it was not just the loud passages that came off so well. There were warmly poetic horn solos by Jeffrey Fair, suitably grinding ensembles in the trombone section. The slow movement seemed more complex in texture than it usually sounds. We were treated throughout to singing woodwinds, remarkably delicate snare-drum playing by Michael Werner, great radiant, soaring lines from the high violins, and in the finale clouds of urgent polyphony that spread enthrallingly through the whole string choir.

The only sour note was produced, not on stage, but in the audience. It takes only one idiot to spoil a great moment for everyone else. That disservice was provided on this occasion by someone at the back of the hall who started clapping before that last bitten-off pizzicato note had even had time to register. The damage once done, the rest of us duly joined in—but I would have given much for a few decent moments of silence to let the message of the work, and of this superb performance, sink in properly.

It was surprising that the program notes made no mention of movement order. Morlot chose the original order rather than the revision, in which Mahler put the slow movement second and the scherzo third. There is admittedly some doubt about what the composer’s final intentions were. But I think the symphony works better with the slow movement second: the beginning of the scherzo, heard directly after the first movement’s ending, is neither exactly enough the same nor sufficiently different to be fully effective, which must surely be why Mahler made the change.

Enterprising as ever, Morlot chose a group of Boulez’s brief Notations to open the program, and had Kimberly Russ preface them with neat performances of the piano originals on which they are based. These are not among Boulez’s strongest works—they possess no real harmonic pulse, so the rhythms are chugging instead of propulsive—but there was some effective orchestral writing to enjoy.


Bernard Jacobson


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


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