Albrecht In an Evening of Substitutions

Mahler, Brahms: Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Cleveland Orchestra, Marc Albrecht (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, 13.2.2014 (MSJ)

 Mahler: Blumine
Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)
Brahms (trans. Schoenberg): Piano Quartet in G minor

This was a concert of substitutions. First—and after a couple years of continued health problems, not surprisingly—Pierre Boulez canceled, leading to the Cleveland Orchestra debut of the young German conductor Marc Albrecht. On Boulez’s originally announced program of mostly Ravel and Debussy Albrecht kept only Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, and brought in Mahler’s Blumine and the Schoenberg arrangement of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor. Then, to make it a perfect trifecta of changes, the announced soloist Alice Coote fell ill, and Sasha Cooke stepped in to take over the songs.

 Considering all the last-minute rearranging, the concert was good, though it never quite broke through to a higher level. Attractive musicianship was its own end, something not quite fulfilling in such a short concert. Considering the relative dearth of Mahler in Cleveland this season, it would have made sense and been more satisfying if the first half’s two related works led to a full performance of the final revision of Mahler’s First Symphony. Instead, we were given an uneasy pairing of two halves that decidedly did not make a whole.

 Blumine (“Flower Pieces”) is a modest orchestral interlude that the young Mahler wrote for a play entitled Der Trompeter von Säkkingen. Too fond of the work to discard it, Mahler attempted to build it into his first symphony, even melodically alluding to it in the finale. But he soon realized that the intimate scale didn’t truly fit the symphony’s ambitions, and it was omitted. It is essentially a shaving off the master’s workbench, but it makes a fine program filler. Marc Albrecht wasn’t afraid to highlight phrases and squeeze the dark shadows that lurk in the middle, relating it to later Mahler masterpieces—a notably more expressionistic approach than the impressionistic performance that Vladimir Ashkenazy gave with the orchestra about twenty years ago. Ashkenazy took a lazy, hazy, lyrical view, while Albrecht’s concept clearly kept the whole body of Mahler’s style in mind. If I preferred Albrecht, it is not without noting that perhaps Ashkenazy would have suited the work standing alone, without Mahler’s First. (Ironically, Ashkenazy was the one who did program the symphony in the same concert.)

 Even more than Blumine, the short song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (“Songs of a Wayfarer”) are germinal to Mahler’s First. Not only do they inhabit a typically Mahlerian mixture of nature and intensely personal emotion, two of its sections were developed into movements in the symphony. The first song, “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” (“When my darling is married”), joins a gloomy main theme with a dewy-eyed pastoral middle section, followed by the false cheer of nature adulation in the second, “Ging heut morgen übers Feld” (“I went this morning across the fields”). “Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer” (“I have a gleaming knife”) is the brief, violent third song, followed by “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (“The two blue eyes of my beloved”), which would find its way as the symphony’s third-movement funeral march.

 The American mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke possesses a rich lower range, and she deployed it to great effect, though she didn’t truly hit her stride until about halfway through the second song. Blame the programming: these Songs of a Wayfarer begin fully enmeshed in the debris of a failed relationship. As pleasant as Blumine might be, it doesn’t prepare either listeners or performers for the Songs’ youthful angst, and thus the first one was largely lost to performers and audience mentally readjusting. Outside of a total concert focus on the works leading up to Mahler’s First Symphony, the transition seemed wasteful, no matter how shrewd Albrecht’s tempo and phrasing were.

 The second song found Cooke’s voice opening up, though she still displayed some strain in her upper register. More importantly, though, she relaxed and began to inhabit the music, communicating instead of presenting. Albrecht savored the nature gestures, making one long to hear what he might do with the symphony. The third movement had pointed phrasings, though Albrecht was careful to keep a tight rein on the orchestra—possibly too tight—to keep the brass from drowning out the soloist. The finale offered a steady tread until drifting off to its dreamlike close, Cooke’s voice sinking down to breathy raptness.

 After intermission came Arnold Schoenberg’s transcription for full orchestra—including xylophone, no less—of Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor. I like the work, though not with the boundless enthusiasm it engenders in some. Like other composers of the mid-Romantic era of the 1800s, Brahms had a way of filling up the middle registers of the sonic spectrum with lots and lots of harmony and melody. Second, Schoenberg enjoyed emphasizing those notes in his orchestral fleshing out of Brahms’s conservative palette, making the very full mid-range even murkier, an effect I find very tiring. That said, Schoenberg’s gilding of high registers and deepening of low registers gives shape, and I welcome those splashes of color. His arrangement also brings a lot of warmth and character.

 Albrecht sifted the string-drenched textures, asking for vigorous playing from the orchestra, but the players seemed at times to be bearing down on their instruments and peering into their sheet music to avoid being distracted by Albrecht’s superfluous balletics. I have no objection to extremely physical conductors—look at Bernstein—but Albrecht has a calculated repertoire of gestures that look rehearsed in front of a mirror. The musicians seemed to be trying to perform in spite of the conductor, not because of his leadership; the more extravagant his gestures became, they more they frowned and studied their scores. Despite some lovely parts, the whole thing didn’t spark until the Hungarian Gypsy music of the finale. Again, Albrecht clarified, but there needed to be more horizontal shaping of melodies as opposed to only the vertical shaping of textures. The second theme can progress irresistibly in some hands—such as former Cleveland Orchestra music director Christoph von Dohnányi, who led conducted it in 2000—but here, proceeded without urgent momentum. Nonetheless, the piece has built-in crowd pleasing humor and drama, and the final stretch brought the audience to its feet.

 Mark Sebastian Jordan