Fischer and NSO masterfully sculpt Mahler's Second

MUSIC

April 08, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun music critic

Some weekends, you just go from musical high to musical high. Friday night, the rush came from hearing a performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony in Washington that really did reach an uplifting peak. Saturday night, it was a riveting encounter with Elliott Carter's thorny, ingenious String Quartet No. 5 in Columbia. On Sunday came the curious and strangely appealing combination of 20th-century minimalism played on 18th-century instruments in Baltimore.

Mahler's Symphony No. 2, known by that Resurrection tag, is a roughly 80-minute journey of body and soul that ranges in sonic impact from the enormous to the exceedingly subtle. Holding it all together, so that the choral finale fulfills its role as the inevitable, emotionally stirring pinnacle, requires unusual skills.

Ivan Fischer, who moves after this season from principal guest conductor to principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, led an involving account of the score with the NSO at the Kennedy Center, striking an effective balance between cool-headed clarity of musical/technical detail and unrestrained expressiveness. And he had the players operating at a mostly very high level.

Marvelous things happened, including lots of transparency in texture. The second and third movements achieved a remarkable chamber-music lightness, with gentle rhythmic sculpting adding to the charm. And Fischer, allowing time to stand still quite magically, ensured that the offstage horn calls in the finale created a truly otherworldly effect.

Jennifer Larmore pushed her mezzo earnestly, if not quite persuasively, in the Urlicht movement. Soprano Juliane Banse generated vocal radiance in the finale, as did the excellent Master Chorale of Washington. That conclusion also inspired the most poetic intensity from Fischer, whose tempos and phrasing proved remarkably organic. The result was goose bump-inducing.

Pacifica Quartet

Candlelight Concerts, which has an enlightened openness to audience-challenging programs, went all-out in presenting the Pacifica Quartet on Saturday at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia. The top-notch ensemble brought along only one really traditional item, Mozart's G major Quartet, K. 387, to balance the daunting complexity of Carter's No. 5 and the considerable spiciness of Prokofiev's No. 2.

Carter, who will turn 100 in December, has long represented the most intellectually rigorous side of abstract, atonal music. His music is derived from complex principles, especially independence - creating separate worlds and rules for each instrument in a piece, yet keeping them all intricately connected. The Fifth Quartet is a perfect example.

In 12 short, uninterrupted movements, the 1995 score seesaws between moods - playful, solemn, quizzical - and tempos, not to mention sound effects (pizzicato takes on a whole new communicative dimension here). The Pacifica musicians got deep into this world of sound and motion, delivering a performance ripe with expressive power. The last several movements, in particular, built up terrific tension, from the spiky, aggressive scattershot of the eighth to the pregnant stillness of the 10th and almost elfin abandon of the finale.

The Wilde Lake center, a temporary home for Candlelight Concerts until its usual venue at Howard Community College is renovated, is hardly ideal for music. It's a big, impersonal space with dead acoustics and, at least on Saturday, a constant ambient drone that suggested an industrial-strength white-noise machine.

Despite the limitations, it was possible to savor the charms of the Mozart quartet (too bad premature applause drowned out his surprise, quiet ending) and the muscular energy of the Prokofiev piece. In both, the Pacifica players demonstrated superb intonation and richly colored phrasing.

Minimal Blacksmith

If it were a movie, Sunday afternoon's concert at the Creative Alliance by the ensemble Harmonious Blacksmith might be titled Forward to the Past. Ordinarily, the members of this fine group relive the baroque era (as they will again on Sunday at the Baltimore Basilica), but here they directed their period instruments at music from more recent times.

Terry Riley's In C, a 1964 work viewed as the flash point of the minimalism revolution, took on a wonderfully earthy, sometimes gritty quality as lutes, recorders, harpsichords and more churned away. Some of the articulation turned fuzzy, but the hypnotic power of the piece emerged strongly as the players explored the surprising possibilities for melodic action within the narrow range set up by Riley.

Narrower still is Piano Phase, a 1967 composition for two pianos by Steve Reich built on a tight little riff that pulses and repeats, deriving its interest from minute variances in speed between the instruments. Here appropriated by a pair of harpsichords, and played with admirable concentration by Joseph Gascho and Elena Tsai, the music effectively made its tense, kinetic points.

In a very different style was Ryohei Hirose's Meditation for solo recorder. Better known for its soft-grained warbling in Renaissance and baroque repertoire, the recorder is called on to screech, slur and squeak, as well as sing and whisper. Justin Godoy did all of that skillfully, finding import in each wildly darting flurry, each lingering murmur.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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