Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Mahler and Mozart(?) End the PSO’s 40th Season

The Pacific Symphony under Carl St. Clair in full cry in Mahler's First Symphony.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

The Pacific Symphony’s 40th season came to its conclusion not with, as originally announced, Mahler’s all-choral, packed-to-the-roof, evening-filling Eighth Symphony (that experience is now promised for the end of next season) but with the more modestly-scaled but still pretty spectacular Symphony No. 1 in D major

The shorter first half was filled by another piece with a complicated history… and one that remains shrouded in probably never-to-be-resolved uncertainty. It is known, from letters to his father, that Mozart wrote a work in Paris, in 1778, for flute, oboe, horn, bassoon and orchestra, intended for performance by a visiting quartet of players. But it was never given, due, Mozart said, to chicanery between another composer and the concert promoter, who did not return his manuscript—which indeed was never seen again. 

Some 90 years later Mozart’s biographer, Otto Jahn, acquired a manuscript, not in Mozart’s hand, which was identified as his “Concertante” for oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, with an orchestra of strings plus pairs of oboes and horns. Jahn had the score recopied by a professional copyist, and it was published in 1877 as the lost work.

Doubts about the Sinfonia Concertante's authenticity grew, however, and the majorly revised 1964 sixth edition of the Köchel catalog of Mozart’s works consigned it to its “doubtful and spurious” appendix. (To make a murky saga murkier yet, Jahn never revealed where he got that manuscript from, and after he died in 1869, it was nowhere to be found). 

On to the late 1980s, when the pianist and musicologist Robert Levin became so engaged with the mystery of the four-wind concertante that he devoted an entire book to it. He concluded that while the orchestra parts were probably spurious, the solo parts were basically genuine, with an unknown arranger recasting Mozart’s original flute and oboe parts for oboe and clarinet respectively. He then proceeded to a conjectural reconstruction of the original, with the solo parts re-reallocated back to the original quartet, and new orchestral parts based on his own deep knowledge of Mozart’s style in the late 1770s. 

The 1877-published Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon, K.Anh C14.01, is still often played, but on this occasion Carl St. Clair chose to perform what was presumably (not clarified in the program booklet) the Levin reconstruction, with Mozart's original solo line-up of flute, oboe, bassoon and horn played by respective PSO section principals Benjamin Smolen, Jessica Pearlman Fields, Rose Corrigan, and Keith Popejoy.

l-r: Rose Corrigan (bassoon), Benjamin Smolen (flute), Keith Popejoy (horn),
and Jessica Pearlman Fields (oboe). 
Given this apparent commitment to musicology’s latest attempt to recreate Mozart’s original work, rather than a fallback to the familiar but spurious version, the actual performance was curiously lackluster. Though St. Clair reduced the PSO strings to around half their full complement, his treatment of the opening tutti was quite weighty and spacious; throughout there was a lack of dynamic nuance from the orchestra (perhaps Levin’s edition, if indeed that was used, is more sparing of dynamic markings than the old version). 

That said, the solo quartet were well matched (by and large the melodic materials are shared out pretty evenly, with all four getting solo moments in the sun and every combination of duet explored), and each player seized the opportunities for heartfelt eloquence in the Adagio’s melodic writing. The Andantino con Variazioni finale, though—again despite plenty of elegant work from the soloists—never really caught fire, with even the Allegro final section remaining at stubbornly low voltage. Perhaps the fact that all three movements are in E-flat major (in no other of his concertos does Mozart have all three movements in the same key) contributes to the work’s overall blandness? Perhaps (whisper it) it’s not really Mozart after all? 

Mahler in 1892, four years before the
Symphony No. 1 reached its final form.
After the interval, it was an entirely different story. I am old enough to remember when—at least in London in the ‘60s—Mahler symphonies in the concert hall were rare enough to be sought out and relished. Now, with Mahlerdolatory past the saturation point, one’s first reaction on seeing one programmed tends to be “again?... really?” And yet, a first-rate account of one of these behemoths still has the power to get under the skin and thrill and inspire an audience, and this was just what Maestro St. Clair and the PSO at beyond-full strength gave to theirs. 

Whether or not it’s the “greatest of all First Symphonies”, as St. Clair speculated in some opening remarks (after leading hearty congratulations to the orchestra at season’s end, in particular those who have been with it since its inception 40 years ago), the symphony's start—a sustained ppp A on all the strings over seven octaves—has a uniquely vernal and premonitory magic, and it was a tribute both to Maestro St. Clair’s balancing of forces and the Segerstrom Hall’s acoustic that the lowest of those seven octaves was just barely, but audibly, touched in, due to Mahler’s allotting it to only one-third of the double-basses. 

The opening’s sense of great things to come was intensified, after soft clarinet upward burblings, by ppp trumpet fanfares beautifully distanced and articulated by the PSO section offstage, after which the amiable main theme, borrowed from Mahler’s earlier Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen, unfolded easefully and spaciously but with no lack of vigor when the exposition’s climax was reached (unsurprisingly, the repeat was not observed).

Carl St. Clair in action.
This pattern—of plenty of interpretative elbow-room combined with heft when needed, allied to playing as enthusiastically committed as it was sensitive—was maintained throughout the performance. There was much detail to be relished: a chunky, feet-stomping Scherzo; just the right degree of glissando from the violins at the start of the Trio; the ear-tickling clarity of section leader Steven Edelman’s muted piano solo double-bass at the beginning of the slow movement; a perfect sharp-intake-of-breath pause before Maestro St. Clair unleashed the storm at the beginning of the finale. 

One niggle: please can the epithet “Titan” for this symphony, used in the PSO’s pre-concert publicity, henceforth be put back to bed in the work’s early history where it belongs? The title was drawn from a romantic novel by one Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (“Jean Paul”), but Mahler dropped it after two performances of the symphony in its first, five-movement, symphonic-poem guise, and never used it again. 

In any case, the expectations “Titan” may arouse of something granitically Eroica-like sit ill—to this listener at least—with the symphony’s potent and highly original blend of nature painting, peasant dance, klezmer-inflected irony, and in the finale, extravagant rhetoric at each end of the emotional spectrum from despair at the start to bombastic triumph at the end, where it was to Maestro St. Clair’s credit that he made Mahler’s protracted roaring and trumpeting (almost) seem justified. On to the mighty Eighth this time next year! 

A standing ovation—of course...


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday June 6, 2018, 8 p.m.
Images: Orchestra and conductor: Doug Gifford; Wind soloists: Steve Dawson; Mozart: Esprit International; Mahler: Wikimedia Commons.

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