‘Inside’ Outside for Mahler and Mozart

I go outside for InsideCatholic occasionally, and most recently journeyed across the pond to assay the musical life in London, always a pleasure in what remains, in my experience, the greatest city for music in the world. What other metropolis can boast several superb symphony orchestras and opera houses, to say nothing of the plentitude of chamber and choral groups and concerts? The wealth is staggering.

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There was also the pleasure of meeting up with Jens Laurson, a brilliant young German music critic, who writes in completely idiomatic, dazzling English for WETA and the Ionarts Web site, on which many of my reviews of live concerts have appeared, edited by this youthful virtuoso. And no trip to London is complete without visiting Martin Anderson, founder and major domo of Toccata Press and Toccata Classics, at his Cork and Bottle haunt off Leicester Square.

In preparation for the big Mahler centenary year (d. 1911), I went with Laurson to the Royal Festival Hall on September 22 to hear Vladimir Jurowski conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir in Mahler’s mammoth Third Symphony, prefaced by the Six Maeterlinck Songs by Alexander Zemlinsky. This interesting bit of programming took us from the death-obsessed and death-desiring to the life-affirming.

In Zemlinsky’s songs, ripeness is all, and the ripeness is death. Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was one of the masters of the idiom of late Romanticism. The music is rich and gorgeous but haunted by a premonition of decay. There is just enough harmonic disorientation to keep the music from being cloying and to hint at the underlying morbidity and the hopelessness underneath the insatiable yearning. Mezzo soprano Petra Lang was perfectly partnered by the London Philharmonic and Jurowski in this unfamiliar fare.

This affirmation of death was eclipsed by Mahler’s affirmation of life — his longest symphonic journey (1.5 hours) that “begins with inanimate nature and ascends to the love of God.” And, I might add, everything in between. When juxtaposed with the Six Maeterlinck Songs, the Third Symphony is almost a remonstration of Zemlinsky as it declares in its closing choral section a “Joy, deeper still than heartache!” This is, in fact, “heavenly joy.” Yearning is not insatiable; it is fulfilled in “a blessed city.” Music can hardly aim higher than to express these things. Mahler fascinates endlessly because he attempted the ineffable. He brings tears by the proximity he achieved.

When I heard the National Symphony Orchestra under Ivan Fisher perform this work in 2008, I experienced an interpretation that aimed at a jewel-like, refined beauty. It toned things down a bit to achieve this. Jurowski gave the Third a more full-throated, rambunctious approach that may be closer to the heart of this phantasmagoric music. I did not perceive any visionary perspective behind his interpretation; he left the vision to Mahler’s music in all its gargantuan and gossamer glory. To let the music have it own way — or to create the impression that it is — is, in a sense, the hardest thing for a conductor to do.

Jurowski and the LPO particularly excelled in the first movement. The opening was spot on, with terrific brass and a timpanist who played real pianissimo. The orchestra created a sense of great spaciousness, so necessary for the vastness of Mahler’s musical canvas. This half-hour movement is extremely rich in incident. Jurowski was expansive enough to allow the myriad details their discrete moments without ever losing the long line. He blended the sounds well, keeping a good balance, but also letting the brass blast away when it was its turn, as it did in the terrific climax.

Since Mahler embraced and tried to fit the entire world into this symphony, every first desk player gets a chance to shine — in fact, every section of the orchestra does. The LPO excelled in this respect. Tuba principal Lee Tsarmaklis was so good that he threatened to turn parts of the first movement into a tuba concerto. But then one must mention Mark Templeton (trombone) and Jaime Martin (flute). But there is no point in continuing this: Double basses, timpanists, and winds were all excellent.

This level of engagement continued in the following movements through to Petra Lang’s singing of the Nietzsche text and the London Philharmonic Choir’s beautiful delivery of the angelic message. And then Jurowski lost me. In the last movement (“What Love Tells Me”), the inner spring — needed even (or most especially) in an extended adagio — failed to keep its tension. The music unwound and never really recovered in the climax. What promised to be a near-great performance became, on average, only a good one — good enough, however, that I would not miss another opportunity to hear Jurowski with these outstanding players.


On to the Royal Opera House to see Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte on September 24. First, the good news: As has been the case in all my experiences at the ROH, the singing was generally exemplary. Cosi is almost an ensemble opera with six principals: two self-deceiving couples in love, the maid Despina, and Don Alfonso. They all need to be at least good for the success of the whole. They were that, except better. Especially striking was William Shimell as Don Alfonso. He stepped into the role at the last minute due to the indisposition of Thomas Allen, who has received unanimous raves in the role. Shimell gave one the best singing/acting performances I have heard and seen in opera. One cannot image the role being performed more brilliantly or with greater assurance and subtlety. His delivery of the title line of the opera, “Cosi fan tutte,” was as delicious as it gets.

Also outstanding was tenor Pavol Breslik as Ferrando. I turned down a chance to have dinner with him after the performance, because I thought of how embarrassing it might be if I did not like his performance. Now, alas, I see I need not have worried. The two sisters, sung by soprano Maria Bengtsson and mezzo Jurgita Adamonyte, were both physically and vocally beautiful. Not only did the principals sing well, but they could all act. This, again, seems to be standard at the Royal Opera House, which, as usual, also produced an attractive program booklet, full of highly literate and engaging essays.

What was the bad news? On my way to London from Slovenia, a friend slipped me a copy of the Spectator, which contained one of the most scathing opera reviews I have ever read. Lovers of invective should read it. Critic Michael Tanner said of director Jonathan Miller’s and conductor Thomas Hengelbrock’s efforts that “the result was positively vicious, an affront to Mozart and Da Ponte for which I can imagine no adequate punishment.”

I also learned that this production, originated in 1995, set Mozart’s 18th-century Naples tale in contemporary times. I usually loathe such transpositions as a sign of temporal provincialism and poverty of imagination on the part of the director. In short, I braced for the worst. Instead of being offended, I was actually entertained. I laughed despite myself.

Miller produced a good deal of humor, some of it from the situation inherent in the opera, some of it gratuitous (as in Guglielmo’s grab for Dorabella’s breast during “Il core vi dono . . .”). In the second act, when the two sisters decide, in the absence of their fiancées, that it’s party time — a kind of 18th-century “girls gone wild” — Miller has them frugging to Mozart’s spirited music. I had to laugh, because this is exactly what my two young daughters would do if they heard this music; they would dance to it, and most likely in this way.

Miller particularly dwelled on the vanity at the heart of the lovers’ self-deception. A full-length mirror near center stage stood as a steady point of reference, with the principals sometimes singing their arias to their own images. Everyone carried cell phones, also used to illustrate their characters’ narcissism.

Love, as these two couples understand it, is a form of self-dramatization and self-absorption. They learn the folly of this when their male lovers take on disguises to test the fidelity of the two sisters, who then fall in love with each other’s fiancés. Is all put right at the end? In the opera, this is at least implied, if uncertain. Miller closes with a bitter note of cynicism that did not quite ring true with the broad humor he chose for the rest of the production. I found it a false note.

In any case, there is irony aplenty in this opera. And as thickly as Miller laid things on, it is really Mozart who proved the supreme ironist. What, after all, is one to make of these deluded women, in all their silliness, nonetheless singing some of the most sublimely beautiful music ever written? Is that divine laughter I hear?

InsideCatholic should send me outside more often.

Image: Photo © Royal Opera House


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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