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Review: ISO features Mahler 5

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ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański
  • ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was an Austrian who wrote only songs, song cycles and symphonies, a very limited set of genres for a major composer. To be sure, in early life he dabbled in two piano quartets, in re-orchestrating some of Beethoven's symphonies, and in a single symphonic poem. But he is known today for four song cycles and all nine and a third of his symphonies (his Tenth was unfinished), gigantic works now dominating the symphony "charts" from the turn of the 20th century.

In my view, Mahler has been a partially acquired taste. I like his first two song cycles, and his First, Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. Of these three I find the Fourth to be the most inspired and inspiring from beginning to end. I also find magic moments peering out of his Second, Third and Fifth symphonies just when I least expect them.

ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański conducted the Mahler Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor/D Major as Friday's sole offering at the Palladium. Because of its bass-ample acoustics, this venue is especially suited for large-scale "monuments." The symphony is cast in three parts, in turn further divided into five movements. Of these the fourth movement, Adagietto, is the most famous, getting performances apart from the symphony's remainder.

Lasting about 70 minutes, Mahler 5 made for a shorter-than-usual program--one probably demanding all of Urbański's available rehearsal time. The symphony opens with a trumpet solo which gradually unwinds into a massive funeral march, in-turn dominating the first movement. Knowing of Mahler's Jewish background prompts me to hear a "klezmer" allusion with each repeat of the dirge.

The second movement, stormy and cacophonous, shows the composer delving strongly into modernist harmonic structure, one which freely modulates within both bars and phrases, concealing any melodic impulse, but offering splashy orchestral color in its stead. This concludes the work's Part 1, after which Urbański offers a three-minute interlude (leaving the stage) as the instructional score indicates. I failed Mahler, in that during that interval I could not digest the maelstrom just finished.

Part 2 begins the third movement, marked as a Scherzo but sounding more like a fragmented Viennese waltz. Here the solo horn dominates the long movement, nicely played by ISO principal Robert Danforth. Then, with a solo harp and purring strings behind it, we have the Adagietto movement which Urbański has rising out of ethereal silence. The strings carry the line, sort of an endless melody woven together seamlessly, making it rather difficult to hum.

Then comes total joy with the finale, opening with another Danforth horn solo. This ushers in a fugal structure, the forced discipline containing Mahler's best writing in the work, its high-register wind playing especially arresting. The symphony ends with a thunderous, D-major proclamation, the audience giving conductor and players in-turn a thunderous ovation.

Any performance of a work as massive as this one trying to bridge the Romantic and Modern musical eras is as hard to discern as it was undoubtedly difficult to prepare. No two podium artists will conduct it alike, given that nuances of tempo and dynamics are more thoroughly indicated in Mahler scores than perhaps any composer preceding him. As far as playing it with as much precision as possible in threading his way though the score's thick intricacies, Urbański conducted it at least as well as anyone else attempting it. June 5; Carmel Palladium in the Center for the Performing Arts

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