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William Zucker
# Posted: 14 May 2009 07:17

Very few conductors for a fact really understand this work. Either they hold certain misconceptions, many of which have been perpetuated over the years, or else have no ideas or conceptions of any sort, yet in performing this work, still feel that they have to DO SOMETHING, to INTERPRET it in some way, with the idea that the music must MEAN SOMETHING, but still they have no idea what.

Mr. Barenboim's performance, in this opinion, was as bad as it gets. There were all sorts of capricious tempo changes and false emphases that threated to and often in fact did, fracture the continuity of the work. To understand a work of this nature, one must be able to block out its various sections, and for each, within reason, maintain a steady tempo.

The tempos in virtually every movement were afflicted with this erratic course. It was least of a problem in the first movement and got gradually worse as the work proceeded, with the last two movements, the Zweite Nachtmusik and Rondo Finale being the worst. There were excessively fast tempos here that bordered on the bizarre and in this view were totally unacceptable as a representative statement.

Even in the first movement, the effect of the Grandioso passage at the beginning of the recapitulation, as the climax of the movement, was completely thrown away as it almost always is. After two bars, the tempo gets insanely sped up and the effect is destroyed.

Much else that I could cite I already mentioned in a lecture to the Mahler Society some years ago, but that referred to a typical performance that one commonly hears, to be dismissed as "vin ordinaire." What we had last night with Barenboim in this work could fairly be described as perverse, and I would go on to say that he has no business conducting this work if that is how he would present it. There was no pulse discernable, and no aspect of the overall structure was dilineated in any way.

The concert had opened with a rendition of the Songs of a Wayfarer, and Thomas Hampson gave a very creditable account of these, deservedly well received by the audience.

Regarding the symphony, the best performances in my opinion are as follows: In recordings - by Hermann Scherchen and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra in an old Westminster recording. This was the recording I actually learned the work by, and if not for it, I probably would be scratching my head over this work like everyone else. By adopting very straight tempi, which others would do well to emulate, he presents a structure that can readily be followed, discerned, and made sense of.
The recordings by Leonard Bernstein with the NY Phil. could be described at the very least as acceptable. In live performances, I have heard one by Georg Solti many years ago which seemed to be very much along the lines that I recommend. I have also heard Robert Spano as a guest conductor with some orchestra I forget which at Avery Fisher Hall in this work, and I found it a pleasure to listen to in its clarity of purpose. Performances like these I've just mentioned are unfortunately few and far between, and in the lecture I gave which I just referred to, I attempted to provide some reasons why such be the case. One would hope that the travesty that Barenboim presented would become a rarity likewise.

P Stumpf
# Posted: 16 May 2009 03:49

Well, the performance struck me as a lucid one, well balanced, with some passages of beauty. Yes, it is a difficult symphony, and one which I don't, perhaps, know as well as I might. So I feel unqualified to comment beyond that.

Thomas Hampson gave a fine performance of Songs of a Wayfarer, just as one expects from such an expressive Mahler singer.

William Zucker
# Posted: 16 May 2009 06:36 - Edited by: William Zucker

I can only repeat what I have already stated, in which, by the way, I find I am not alone.

I also understand that this performance was knocked by the NY Times reviewing critic.

We do agree about Thomas Hampson.

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