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Berg: Violin Concerto (1935) & Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (1909), Christian Tetzlaff, Violin, The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine, Artistic Director and Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, May 23, 2004 (BH)

In all my years of being stirred by Berg’s Violin Concerto, I don’t recall any artist ever attempting an encore following its serene, mysterious final chords, but Christian Tetzlaff found one: a Bach Largo (from Solo Violin Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005), and I just could not believe how naturally it seemed to flow from what had come before. It seemed a perfect coda, delivered to a raptly quiet audience, following Tetzlaff’s equally rapt performance of the Berg that seemed generous in spirit on an afternoon that was perhaps over-generous with music in general.

What a pity that Berg never lived to hear this masterpiece performed. Written in response to the untimely death of the young Manon Gropius, it is without doubt one of the 20th century’s great violin concerti. I’m familiar with two recordings, by Itzhak Perlman and Anne-Sophie Mutter, and Tetzlaff offered yet a different temperature, that perhaps emphasized its wintry aspects. The piece opens with transparent, magical open fifths, which are picked up by the orchestra and passed from section to section. Berg then grafts on a twelve-tone row, and then finally uses a Bach chorale that melds amazingly with everything that has come before it.

Initially I was mildly dismayed at Tetzlaff’s wan, almost colorless opening tone, but shortly I realized that this was part of his conception to invoke the dying girl, and was absolutely under precise control. Other marketers of this piece may go for broke in the “virtuoso” arena, but Tetzlaff’s studied anemia (at least initially) then grew into a ravishing romantic streak, somehow capturing a mood I have never heard in this piece. By not shying away from the death-haunted iciness, Tetzlaff seemed completely inside the music, gently bending his knees and leaning into phrases, as James Levine and the magnificent Met Orchestra bobbed and swayed with him. Although Tetzlaff had power to spare, somehow the overall impression was one of loneliness, of dark spirituality, rather than barn-burning virtuosity. The ending, despite a final chord that drowned out the ethereal feeling, seemed to spiral up to some unknown place high in the sky. Rapturous, indeed. And then came that unexpected Bach that seemed to tie everything together with exquisite insight.

If only such insights had flooded the remainder of this program as well. It is difficult for me to write, as a longtime admirer of Levine, the Met Orchestra, and the Mahler Ninth, that I really didn’t know what to make of this outing. This must have been the slowest Ninth I have ever heard, and I’m not happy to write that the excessively trudging tempi did not seem to pay off in greater wisdom. It just seemed, well, slow.

With the orchestra’s gleaming second violin section in its usual keen form, the first movement opens with one of Mahler’s gentlest, simplest motifs – to my ears a resigned sigh – from which grows a journey that swells with violence but ultimately finds an almost supernatural peace and radiance. Most of his symphonies begin with a huge charge of energy, but not this one, which begins from almost nothing, flows into itself and then erupts briefly in the tornado-like third movement, before ultimately subsiding again.

The second movement, normally with a somewhat impish character, suffered the most from the deliberate treatment. I hear this interlude as an almost self-mocking diversion, as if the composer were trying a different approach to stave off death, saying, “Let’s try a little dance,” but any potential contrast seemed gone. And in the nightmarish third movement, seemingly the composer’s last rallying cry, Levine’s pace drained out much of the vigor there as well. Granted, the fugal elements were solidly in place, with the expertly drawn contrapuntal lines easily audible. But the pace gave the music a sort of bumptious, hayseed quality that seemed completely at odds with what I interpret as an almost malevolent, “I am Mahler, hear me roar” quality. Indeed, the final few bars were thrilling – how can they not be when performed by such an ensemble? – but getting there was not the angry storm it can be, seething with electricity.

And then came the almost exasperatingly slow final movement. Yes, Mahler’s instructions at the end are beyond Adagissimo, but somehow here the intensity seemed to be leached out. As a general rule, I’m all in favor of allowing Mahler’s scores to breathe, more than some conductors have in some eras, to let the richness and detail come through more strongly and incisively. But in this case, the long breaths came at the expense of the whole, and I felt that the tension ultimately evaporated. Granted, this may have been Levine’s conception.

The orchestra, pressed to the extreme on this afternoon, did its utmost to keep up with the maestro’s requests, and as usual, there were many phenomenally played passages. From the harps’ first tiny murmurings, one can only marvel at the terrific individual musicians that fill the ranks here. The gorgeous horns were making easy work of their perilously exposed streams in the final pages, and if nothing else, the floods of string sound in the closing bars sounded as if heaven had opened up just overhead.

Although part of Mahler’s genius is that his work can, and does, withstand many interpretations, I couldn’t help but feel that this Ninth was just a bit aimless, almost directionless, as if I were floating in a huge pool of gorgeous sound. And of course, “directionless” is not what this piece is about. Whether because of health issues, or some end-of-season fatigue, or some other reason (I vote for fatigue, just based on a glance back at the Met’s extraordinarily dense season), this was probably not a Ninth that would make new admirers, either of the piece or of Levine’s artistry. The audience, which to its immense credit could not have been more keenly attentive, stayed focused throughout the afternoon, and miraculously quiet. Even after the microscopically hushed final bars, the silence in Carnegie was breathtaking, and only when Levine carefully, almost meditatively closed the back cover of the score did the ovation begin. (And clearly many here were moved to the point of ecstasy.) But I wonder if the loving applause was more for Levine’s achievements – it has been an absolutely marvelous season after all – than for what was laid out on this particular occasion. As I stood up I heard a woman behind me sigh, “That was endless.” And that’s not to be confused with “timeless.”

Bruce Hodges


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