Pondering Human Beings and Expectations in Mozart and Mahler

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Mahler: Maurizio Pollini (piano), MET Orchestra, James Levine (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 12.10.2014 (BH)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 (1785)
Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (1909-1910)

During the exuberant curtain call that ended this afternoon with James Levine, Maurizio Pollini and the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, I found myself musing on an audience’s history with performers, and the many mysterious, often non-musical elements that can combine to create a memorable concert. Opinions on the afternoon varied widely, from some colleagues who were disappointed, to the hundreds of people in the sold-out house who obviously felt differently.

There is no denying that the spectacle of Levine merely reaching the podium—coupled with the small dramatic touch as his high-tech chair ascends—probably fuels an audience primed to love him. Pollini, now 72, has long been considered at the pinnacle of pianistic art, and the orchestra, now considered among the best anywhere, carries comparable high expectations. (Full disclosure: I am inclined to think positively about each, after decades of great music-making.)

In Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, Pollini had to combat a sleek, pumped-up sound (even with a thinned-out Mozartean ensemble), and wasn’t always successful. Though there were some insightful sequences, I’m not sure there were enough to justify the massive adoration at the conclusion. The melodious second movement may have fared best, technically, but accuracy suffered in some of the concerto’s many 16th-note runs, many of which were smudged. I’d like to think Pollini still has some concerts in him worth hearing, but I also respect an artist when he or she knows that it’s time to adjust a creative path, or consider another one.

So how does a Mahler Ninth, peppered with occasional instrumental lapses, emerge as an emotional triumph? I don’t have a clear answer.

Like all of Mahler’s symphonies, this one could be viewed as a “concerto for orchestra,” given its nonstop confluences of instrumental textures and solos, coupled with sheer difficulty. (I would love to have been at the 1912 premiere with Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic, if only to observe the audience reaction.) But rather than dwell on virtuosity, there’s perhaps another point to be made about perception, and most listeners’ ability to focus: In this piece, there is simply too much going on (albeit gloriously) and it’s easy to overlook less-well-executed elements in one section of the orchestra when others are so brilliantly distracting. In the hallucinatory first movement, the group sounded weighty, polished, and relaxed, with some appropriately acrid horns and low brass. During the second-movement Ländler, slower than normal, its colors invited comparison to Ravel’s La valse.

In the turbulent Rondo, I noticed a few missteps in the horns (who received cheers at the end), yet that said, the violence came burning through, and the musicians mostly outdid themselves in leapfrogging over each other, right up until the sudden shriek that ends it all. And in the finale, leisurely for sure, there seemed to be some underlying hesitance, perhaps caused by the languid tempos, though some of the orchestra’s principals (e.g., concertmaster David Chan, violist Michael Ouzounian) had glistening moments among the skeletal textures as the movement neared its shadowed close.

Perhaps the death-affirmed content of the work itself simply dovetailed too neatly with thoughts about Levine’s career and—not to get too morbid—the end of it. With those thoughts swirling around, who could not be moved, just to see him tackle this piece and do it more than justice?

Bruce Hodges

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