Two Concerts with a Spotlight on the “King of Instruments”

United StatesUnited States Mahler: Angela Meade (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Westminster Symphonic Choir (Joe Miller, director), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 2.11.2014 (BJ)

Mahler: Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”

Buxtehude, Paulus, and Elgar: Ken Cowan (organ), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 8.11.2014 (BJ)

Buxtehude: Chaconne in E minor, orch. Chávez
Paulus: Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra
Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme, “Enigma”


In the immortal words of Mrs. Organ Morgan, that long-suffering character in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, it was “organ organ all the time”—or nearly all—while the Philadelphia Orchestra devoted several weeks of concentrated attention to that instrument’s involvement in the orchestral repertoire. In addition to newer and less familiar works, several of the usual suspects were rounded up for this survey, including Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, Mahler’s Second Symphony, Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, and Also sprach Zarathustra by Strauss (whose Alpine Symphony had also featured in the season’s opening program), though music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin took a welcome pass on the perhaps already too familiar Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony.

The largest single work we heard was Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. With possible competition only from Messiaen, Mahler surely ranks as the world’s greatest master of musical vulgarity—and I intend that, up to a point, as a compliment. “Style” in a composer does not reside in avoiding the vulgar or the banal: it depends rather on knowing when you are being vulgar or banal. When Mahler, in the last movement of this symphony, is portraying a doomsday scene in which “all creatures…come marching: beggars and rich men, common people and kings, the Church Militant, the popes,” the picture he paints attains the most comprehensive degree of vulgarity.

But—and this is the point where compliment gives place to complaint—it seems to me that a certain remnant of banality persists also in those passages where the composer is aiming for the sublime. Even in the culminating proclamation of the chorale celebrating the resurrection of all those souls, there is something voulu—something a tad self-regarding—about the undeniable grandeur of the music.

I know I am in a minority in feeling this way. Whether readers may find any validity in the suggestion will probably depend on their response to the extra-musical ideas that Mahler expressed in his accounts of the work’s origins. To my mind, some details aside, they can best be described as a pretentious, pseudo-philosophical load of codswallop. In responding to what he called—already with a touch of grandiloquence—his “Holy Annunciation,” he poses “the great question: What did you live for? What did you suffer for? Is it all just a huge, terrifying joke?—We have to solve these questions in some way or other if we are to go on living—even if we are just to go on dying!” And, he asserts, “The person in whose life this call has once resounded must give an answer.” The assertion has a certain plausibility—but can you imagine a composer like Bach, or Haydn or Mozart, who certainly confronted big issues, or even Beethoven, who had his own share of self-absorption, making such a statement? When Beethoven wanted to signal the special significance of the D-major Mass, he made no claim to any kind of God-imposed obligation to Bear Witness, but simply wrote: “From the heart—may it go back to the heart.”

All this is by way of explaining why I love the “Resurrection” Symphony but am not totally overwhelmed by it. As for the performance Nézet-Séguin crafted, I have no more than minimal reservations in calling it a triumph. Mahler’s management of interlocking tempos achieves a continuity that survives all shifts from the need to beat single beats, half measures, or whole measures, and the conductor negotiated the various gear-changes brilliantly.

From the very beginning, the famous Philadelphia strings, reputed above all for their sumptuous richness of tone, made their impact less for that quality than for the whiplash attack they mustered. Woodwinds—especially principal oboe Richard Woodhams—covered themselves in glory. Brass and percussion played impeccably throughout. Angela Meade and Sarah Connolly delivered their solo lines as beautifully as I have ever heard them sung.

My reservations? Well, like most conductors, Nézet-Séguin skated through the third measure of the symphony, which ought to prolong suspense before the lower strings’ second entry, as if it wasn’t there. One of the solo soprano passages in the finale was allowed to emerge too soon out of the choral texture. And I could have done with more bass sonority—more sheer awe—from the otherwise excellent chorus.

Thus far, across the span of four separate and demanding programs, I was mightily impressed by my first experiences of Nézet-Séguin’s conducting. So, a week after the Mahler, I approached his take on Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations with the liveliest optimism.

There were indeed beautiful touches to be enjoyed at many points in the performance—and yet, as a whole, it constituted the first major disappointment his conducting has provided for me. Elgar’s music is widely regarded as the confident, even brash, voice of late-Edwardian imperial grandeur, but that has always seemed to me to miss the essence of his musical character. His major multi-movement orchestral works, with one exception, all end not in grandiloquence but in profound questionings: consider the First Symphony, with the bass instruments protesting away against the rest of the orchestra’s triumphal celebration of the motto march tune. The Second Symphony and the Violin Concerto spend their closing moments in profound meditation, and the Cello Concerto is far from celebratory at any point in its progress. So I always felt that the glorious culmination of the “Enigma” Variations was somehow out of character, until I learned that the Finale in its first form was nearly a hundred measures shorter. Elgar added the grandiose coda with its optional organ part on the urging of his friend and publisher Jaeger (“Nimrod”) and other friends who found the original ending too abrupt. (For his ballet version, incidentally, the choreographer Frederick Ashton chose to restore the first ending.)

Far more important in the make-up of this profoundly insecure and self-questioning man and composer is a vein of tenderness that is utterly characteristic, and virtually unmatched in the work of any other composer. It can be found emerging from more outgoing passages in both of the symphonies he completed, and in such works as Falstaff and Cockaigne, and I think it is impossible to listen even to the “Land of Hope and Glory” tune without detecting an element of wistfulness underlying its surface imperial confidence.

 The first half of the concert was fairly inconsequential, with a good performance of a Buxtehude Chaconne, in Chávez’s orchestration, and an excellent one with Ken Cowan as soloist in the third concerto the late-lamented Stephen Paulus wrote for organ. When Nézet-Séguin’s “Enigma” performance began, I had high hopes that he might have penetrated to the Elgarian quasi-secret I have been describing, for the clarinets in the major-key middle section of the theme captured exactly that inward tenderness, and the conductor found it in several other passages, and even in the middle section of “Nimrod.” But that variation’s actual climax was symptomatic of a general approach that paid much more attention to the grandiose and brilliant aspects of the score than to its more inward side. The quieter variations were finely played by all concerned in them, and the intermittent fast variations were dispatched with veritably murderous virtuosity, but whenever the music became assertive in less than helter-skelter tempos, there was a pervasive want of warmth, and the shallowness of tone in fortissimo from the indubitably brilliant brass section was the strongest evidence of the lack.

Thus even the sensitively phrased “Nimrod,” magical for nine-tenths of its length, and with the difficult sudden die-away ending masterfully managed, lost all majesty at its climax. It would be unreasonable to expect any young or young-ish conductor to be equally adept in every kind of music. Nézet-Séguin is already adept in many stylistic fields; I hope he will persist with Elgar, and find what his understanding of the composer so far misses.


Bernard Jacobson