Classics Declassified – Mahler Symphony No. 1

This afternoon the American Symphony Orchestra directed by Leon Botstein presented the first of this season's three Classics Declassified concerts at Symphony Space.  The subject was Mahler's Symphony No. 1.  As usual, the format was that Botstein gave a talk with some illustrative passages played by the orchestra, then they performed the entire piece, and finally there was a question & answer session with the audience.

I thought Botstein's talk was a bit incoherent at times but frequently enlightening.  He has a habit of swallowing words from time to time, or getting words mixed up when he tries to push ahead too fast.  But he usually has interesting things to say.  He spent much time dwelling on the movement that Mahler decided to omit from the published version of the symphony in 1899, the original second movement titled "Blumine," which Botstein said had originally been composed as part of incidental music to a play before Mahler began work on the symphony.  This afternoon's performance included "Blumine" in the second movement position, and it was easy to see why Mahler ultimately decided to omit it – it just doesn't fit with the rest of the symphony.  By the time Mahler had premiered the piece, played it a few times, and revised the orchestration prior to publication, it had become clear that this was an immature early piece in a style that was out of joint with the rest of the symphony.  In fact, in Botstein's performance with the ASO, it sounded like an intermezzo from an Italian verismo opera, not a movement in a very Germanic symphony.

As to the performance of the symphony, I thought it was spectacularly good, despite the unduly reticent cymbal playing.  Botstein's comments before and after the performance showed his dislike for the overly romanticized and sentimental approach to Mahler taken by many other conductors.  This was a brisk performance, unsentimental (although not without sentiment in the appropriate places), clear-eyed, and swiftly moving forward.  One wondered why Botstein included "Blumine" (he never really explained why he decided to include it despite Mahler's ultimate decision not to publish it), but one idea suggested itself to me: at Botstein's tempi, the symphony would really have had no "slow movement" had he not included "Blumine," because his tempo for the "funeral march" was faster than the norm.  Indeed, even with "Blumine" included and the first movement repeat being taken, the piece came in at well under an hour.

I thought it was an auspicious start for a season that will focus on 20th century classics.  (Or so Botstein said; beginning a series devoted to 20th century classics with a piece premiered in the early 1890s and published before the turn of the century and written in a firmly tonal, romantic idiom, is a bit weird, especially taking into account Botstein's comment that the 19th century really extends to World War I! See what I mean about incoherence?)  

The ASO spends so much time playing unusual or obscure repertory that they sound just bursting with enthusiasm when they get the occasional chance to cut loose with a juicy bit of standard repertory, and this was their chance.  They triumphed with it.  Next up in this series, in February, is Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.  Now, that should really be something, even if we're still locked in winter when they play it!

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