Daniel Barenboim’s Way with Mahler Remains Not Completely Convincing

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival [10] – Mahler: Okka von der Damerau (mezzo-soprano), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim (conductor), Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 22.8.2019. (MB)

Okka von der Damerau (c) Michael Lie

Mahler – Kindertotenlieder; Symphony No.5

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony seems perhaps to be his most difficult to bring off convincingly. Perhaps the only entirely convincing performance I have heard in the concert hall – alas, I never heard Pierre Boulez conduct it live – came from Daniele Gatti. Conductors as different as Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim have struggled in different ways. Given more than a dozen years since I last heard Barenboim, it seemed time to give him another try, not least given the presence of the Vienna Philharmonic. (He can certainly excel in Mahler, not least in the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies.) The verdict, especially earlier on, remained mixed, at least for me, although the audience greeted the performance with great enthusiasm. (Do audiences ever not greet performances of Mahler with such enthusiasm nowadays?) And, to be fair, its merits increased as time progressed. I remain, however, to be convinced, that this is really Barenboim’s piece.

My scepticism was probably strongest in the first movement, perhaps the first part (movements one and two) as a whole. Barenboim’s initial tempo was on the slow side, but not unreasonably so; the problem was more the constant slowing from that (first) basic tempo, leading the music to drag, sometimes to the extent of lacking much in the way of pulse at all. For whatever reasons, his singular way with the Seventh – it really should not work, yet it does – in which he treats the music almost as if it were Brahms, seems quite at sea here; textures merely seem thick, rather than revealing a myriad of colours within. Mahler’s great storms fared better, timbrally too. In the second movement, the VPO seemed to temper its conductor somewhat, although I still felt the music weighed down: not quite congested, but not quite uncongested either.

The scherzo, by contrast, had a good and proper sense of facing both ways, even if it would have benefited from something more sharply defined. What we hear here is clearly what Barenboim wants: I remain somewhat at a loss as to why, though. In the Adagietto, not inappropriately post-Wagnerian, we heard something quite lovely indeed: tender, not at all overwrought, and directed. Here, how could one not give thanks for the Vienna strings? The finale likewise emerged with considerable charm and ebullience, not only admirably clear but also directed. Irony? Not so much, but I am not sure that has ever really been Barenboim’s thing.

Kindertotenlieder, which preceded the symphony, seemed to me far more successful as a whole, Barenboim’s way with the music very different indeed. It had me wish that he had approached the symphony, at least in part, in similar fashion. Perhaps in part because he is a pianist, who has performed these songs in that role too, he showed himself especially alert to particularities of orchestral colour. Most notably in the opening ‘Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n’, yet far from only there, individual woodwind lines in particular pointed directly to Webern. This was modernist Mahler, which belied lazy, downright inaccurate generalisations of such performance. There are still, even now, people who describe Boulez’s conducting of such music as ‘cold’. But enough of their hearts; this was surely Mahler that Barenboim’s great friend and inspiration would have appreciated, as much for its harmonic grounding in Wagner as for later-twentieth-century anticipations. Okka von der Damerau proved an ideal soloist: clear, honest, with no need to impute further, false ‘emotions’ of her own. Her experience in Wagner singing told too: in some ways, this was, quite aptly, Mahler from Valhalla, the alleged tonal journey from D minor to major as provisionally redemptive as that implies.

Mark Berry

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