Concert probes the mind of Mahler

Review: A conductor-psychiatrist guides the Dresden orchestra into the sound and psyche of the endlessly fascinating composer.

January 26, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Psychoanalysis might best be done privately, just doctor and patient. On Wednesday evening at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, it took place in full view of a large, attentive audience.

On the couch, so to speak, was composer Gustav Mahler. Doing the mental probing was Giuseppe Sinopoli, with the help of the Dresden Staatskapelle, one of Europe's oldest orchestral institutions (453 years and counting). It was quite a session - alternately depressing, exhilarating, hopeful, angry, loving, scary.

It's easy to make too much of the fact that Sinopoli, one of the most interesting conductors on the international scene for the past 25 years or so, has a degree in psychiatry. But on this occasion, the connection seemed entirely relevant.

Mahler's Symphony No. 6, which wasn't nicknamed the "Tragic" for nothing, contains layer upon layer of self-analysis - what great 20th-century composer Hans Werner Henze described as music that "is interrogating itself about the reason for its existence and about its nature." Mahler himself was described as extremely agitated after the premiere of this piece, crying and wringing his hands backstage; perhaps he was unnerved by how close he had gotten to the truth about himself.

The Sixth Symphony is haunted by death, yet Mahler couldn't have been much happier when he was writing it. His shaky marriage was, at that point around 1904, in one of its smoothest periods; his two young daughters gave him enormous enjoyment. But something deep down came rising up in the score, launching a brutal, eventually funereal march in the first movement and a scherzo filled with bone-rattling demons.

Counteracting those forces was an outpouring of lyrical beauty rarely surpassed in his work. The first movement has a soaring, heart-catching theme (he said it was his attempt to capture his wife, Alma, in music) that temporarily obliterates the deathly march. The third movement forms a haunting, rather comforting ode to nature and creates a sense of blissful loneliness (sounds of distant cowbells suggest an ascent to a spiritual spot far above the mundane world).

The way the dark forces get the last word in this symphony had Alma Mahler convinced that it was a presentiment of the calamities that would quickly befall her husband - an ugly resignation from the Vienna Opera, the death of his eldest daughter, the diagnosis of his heart disease. (In the original version of the score, three huge hammer blows on a specially built drum corresponded neatly to that theory; Mahler later removed the third strike.)

Sinopoli seemed to have all of these images in mind as he delved into the material, yet brought many of his own ideas to the music as well. This was a startlingly individualistic interpretation.

Shifts in tempos were often exaggerated, abrupt, playing up the split-personality aspect of the symphony. Alma's theme in the first movement, for example, was shaped very slowly, making it even more a contrast to the opening march than usual. The third movement was taken at a crawl, very much an "Adagio" speed, where Mahler called for a more flowing "Andante moderato."

But such decisions were so carefully examined and prepared by the conductor - and so emotionally committed - that they proved persuasive. The questions, doubts and fears that inhabit this symphony became all the more palpable; so did the elusive quest for inner peace.

The concert, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, was notable not just for Sinopoli's distinctive touches, but also for the playing by the Dresden ensemble. There were a few little accidents of articulation or tonal blend, and I wish the cowbells had not been quite so faint. But nothing could mar the overall picture of a sensitive, disciplined orchestra as fully engaged as its music director in the fascinating process of figuring out what made Mahler tick.

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