Finding the ’emotional logic’: Nezet-Seguin tackles Mahler’s Sixth by Curtis Rittenhouse

By on January 28, 2012

At this week’s Philadelphia Orchestra Concert, foreshortened by the annual fund-raisers’ ball Saturday night, incoming music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin again showed his thoughtful approach to programming.

The centerpiece was Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, the so-called Tragic, which the orchestra recorded in 2005 with former music director Christoph Eschenbach. In spite of Mahler’s increasing popularity with the public and players alike, this complex piece of music is not easy to bring off. It calls for a very large orchestra with augmented brass and percussion. Cowbells tinkle through three movements and controversial hammer blows characterize the last, which is about a half an hour in length. Eight horns blast their way through prophetic marches and moment of upheaval. The composer himself could never quite decide the order of the middle movements. He revised it several times before he died five years later, reducing five hammer blows to two.

Mahler who was music director of the Vienna Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic was a well-respected conductor at the turn of the nineteenth century. He knew what a great post-Wagnerian orchestra is capable of producing. His Sixth Symphony calls for virtuoso playing and some degree of audience patience. His  disciples have cited all sorts of twaddle about what his later symphonies mean, fate, personal calamity, some even claiming he foretold the entirecTwentieth Century through his intensely personal music. That’s where the conductor’s role comes in. Not only does he need to have the whole thing technically in his head, he needs to understand which passages need special attention and how to put this long-winded composition across as a unit

There are two types of conductors for this job: ones who believe it is all in the notes (e.g. Leinsdorf, Szell, Boulez) and others who understand there was a certain amount of emotional logic to the composition of the piece that does not show up on the printed page (e.g. Barbirolli, Bernstein and Nezet-Seguin). They seek insights to help put the composition across by studying his life and writings about him. These conductors can get into trouble when they mistake their own emotional logic for the composer’s. Mahler’s widow also complicates the picture with her own pronouncements.

In his First Symphony, Mahler was ambitious, bursting with first-rate things to express but understandably cautious and sensitive to his listener. It is not as hard to interpret. By the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth, his writing had grown more complex, dark, prolix and frankly repetitious.

Music is just one way of expressing one’s self to others —  as is oratory. Even Winston Churchill would run a risk going on for over an hour. Anyone with something to say should know to say it and get off when the moment is right. This is Mahler’s problem. He sometimes says what he has to say and goes on. That is also the conductor’s challenge. Yes, Mahler was a great composer but even Beethoven did not compose a Fifth Symphony every time out.

And of course, much of this is a matter of taste to the listener. One may tolerate long-windedness better in Bruckner or Wagner’s Ring than one does in Mahler or vice versa.

Yannick had obviously done his homework on Mahler’s Sixth. He saw its ties to Bruckner and he knew the outer movements need some help. He was with the orchestra all the way, digging into lines. underscoring significant passages, sorting out contributions, maintaining balances, but also giving the more bombastic moments full throat as Mahler intended. The brass acquitted themselves splendidly through some tricky exposed writing. The percussion was well modulated with the rest of the orchestra, though the hammer blows are something of a hoot. The celesta, xylophone and harps were heard when needed. The orchestra was alive and committed, harking back to its golden days as judged through recordings. I cannot imagine better advocacy for this piece. The orchestra itself look pleased as it took its bows.

The first half of the concert was a novelty. Nezet-Seguin took to the harpsichord for Bach Fifth Brandenburg Concerto with concertmaster David Kim and first flute Jeffrey Khaner as soloists. The music director did not so much conduct from the keyboard as perform as a member of the ensemble, acquitting himself well in his solo passages. There were no great insights offered, the tempos were well-mannered if not high-spirited, but the piece was well-played and made for a nice contrast before the high calorie offering which followed. Interestingly Stokowski led this same piece and recorded it at one of his last return engagements with his old orchestra in the 1960’s.

Nezet-Seguin seems a diligent student of the orchestra’s heritage and will lead a tribute to Stokowski in the year to come. A full house applauded loud and long for its new director Friday night. Something special is clearly in the air.

Curtis Rittenhouse


About Tom Godfrey

One comment on “Finding the ’emotional logic’: Nezet-Seguin tackles Mahler’s Sixth by Curtis Rittenhouse

  1. TGodfrey on said:

    Thank you. Please come back again. Tom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


HTML tags are not allowed.