Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), conducted by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), gave the second of its two “bon voyage” concerts to preview the music that SFS will perform during their European tour, which is about to begin. As was the case on Friday night, the soloist was again pianist Yuja Wang, who will join SFS on this tour. Last night she performed the only work on the first half of the program, Béla Bartók’s second piano concerto. The second half of the program consisted entirely of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony.
MTT’s commitment to the Mahler’s orchestral repertoire has been a hallmark of his tenure with SFS. In 2011 SFS Media released The Mahler Project, a seventeen-CD collection of all of the symphonies and most of the orchestral songs, as well as Mahler’s early secular cantata, “Das klagende Lied” (song of lamentation). MTT also gave special attention to Mahler in his Keeping Score project, with a release that same year of four hours of content on DVD under the title Mahler: Origins and Legacy. That release was awarded the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik in the DVD Classical: Concerts and Documentaries category.
Fortunately, MTT appreciates that there is no “last word” on any of Mahler’s compositions. He has continued regularly to revisit selections from Mahler’s catalog, and his decision to take Mahler on the coming European tour was no surprise. For that matter, it was also no surprise that last night’s performance of the first symphony was as fresh as ever.
Because each of Mahler’s symphonies is on such a large scale, I find myself returning to the thoughts of Pierre Boulez on the matter of keeping such magnitude under control. My favorite quote, which comes from an interview that Boulez gave with New York Times music critic James Oestreich, bears repeating:
The trick in performing … is to sort out the climaxes from the lesser peaks, so that the real ones stand out.
Such sorting out demands recognizing that there can be only a few such climaxes, at most one in each movement of a symphony; and, within that limited number, one climax must rise above the others.
MTT had a clear sense of such a “landscape” of climaxes in last night’s reading of Mahler’s first symphony. He knew that Mahler had planned a climax to mark the beginning of the coda of the symphony’s first movement. As a result, MTT offered up a highly skilled approach to keeping the listener in suspense until that climax burst forth, making it clear that any intensity of energy preceding that moment was never more than a “lesser peak.”
The final movement was more problematic because it begins with a burst of energy, jolting the listener from the almost deathly silence into which the preceding movement has faded. Fortunately, MTT knew how to keep the balance of this movement under control, recognizing that the real climax again comes with the coda, which amounts to a summing-up of the entire journey through the symphony. Such control is no easy matter, given the number of abrupt mood swings that the conductor must manage during that fourth movement. However, last night made it clear that MTT had mapped out his “landscape,” always knowing where he was and where he was going. For those of us who have followed MTT’s Mahler performances over the course of his tenure, last night was a “T. S. Eliot moment” of returning to a place we had been and knowing it for the first time.
Bartók’s second piano concerto, on the other hand, has not enjoyed quite so much exposure. This is a pity because it is both dazzlingly energetic and highly imaginative. His decision to eliminate the entire string section from the concerto’s first movement must have struck many as disconcerting the first time they encountered this concerto. However, taken in its entirety, the concerto is very much a work of contrasts (a noun Bartók favored as the title of one of his pieces of chamber music); and the journey through the concerto’s three movements is as much about a path through different sonorities as it is about the statement and development of thematic material.
Sadly, the former of those journeys did not get quite the fair shake it deserved last night. Pitting a single piano against large masses and winds and brass is risky business. However, in this concerto it is not just the mass that matters but also individuality, the number of times when each instrument has a separate part. Bartók had a keen ear for counterpoint, as anyone familiar with his string quartets knows full well. Last night, however, much of the interplay of counterpoint among brash sonorities from the winds and brass came across as rough-hewn slabs of sound, rather than finely-crafted textures. This played up Bartók’s boldness but short-changed the elegance of syntax that endows this concerto with its most dynamic properties.
Things were somewhat improved during the middle movement, where the emphasis was on quietude on the brink of total silence. These Bartók moments are often called “night music” with the connotation of a darkness in which perception is only barely possible. Here both MTT and Wang kept their dynamics under tight control, creating a rhetoric of the suspense of an unknown that may well be sinister. However, in the far more energetic outer movements, the result was a bit like that blurred tornado funnel that the Looney Tunes cartoons used to represent the Tasmanian Devil. A bit more attention to sorting out those “lesser peaks” would have been beneficial during those movements by clearing up at least some of that blur.