Like Father, Like Son
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony #4 "Italian"
Gustav Mahler: Symphony #4
Juliane Banse (soprano)
Paavo Jarvi (conductor)
By Fred Kirshnit
Abraham Mendelssohn the banker once described his life by saying "for the first half I was my father's son; now I'm my son's father", referring to his lineage from the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn to the famous composer. Neeme Jarvi may have to face the happy possibility someday that he is his son's father in the public imagination as the young Estonian Paavo Jarvi makes his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra, filling in on an emergency basis for Riccardo Chailly who has suffered a shoulder injury.
The Italian Symphony is one of those rare works of music that seems to begin even before the first note as the anticipation of the famous opening hangs heavy over the anticipating crowd. Mr. Jarvi did not disappoint, commencing at a hearty prestissimo and sustaining it throughout the first movement. The Philadelphia sound is, as always, refined and beautiful and puts the local orchestra here to shame. The familiar work went on apace, but fagged in excitement as it moved along and one realized that there was nothing new in this flawless but seemingly routine performance. It was difficult to judge the merits of this fledgling maestro, since anyone could just whisper the words "Mendelssohn 4" to these gifted musicians and obtain a performance of this high but ultimately unsatisfying level. There appeared to be no hand of the master guiding these magnificent individuals and this could very well be due to the lack of rehearsal time under the last minute substitute. Not a bad performance overall but not one to cherish either.
Mahler's Fourth is essentially an essay of contrasts between the disjointed and the smooth, between awkwardness and gentility, between Schrammelmusik and sublimity, between the coarse and the urbane. Here Mr. Jarvi was able to express his own personal conception of the work very clearly, a feat not often accomplished even by the most proficient of conductors. With such an elegant instrument to play on he made the most of his opportunity and produced a wonderfully personal and extremely intelligent reading of this masterful but bizarre orchestral stew. The first movement, often played to emphasize its prettiness by wrongheaded baton twirlers, was powerfully directed by Mr. Jarvi as a dance on a tightrope with each rhythm dotted to precision and hair-raising near falls from the high wire. The overall effect was surreal and unsettling and made one realize how Mahler must have conducted it at the disastrous premiere where no one in the audience understood this duality of angular rhythms and flowing legato lines (although Stravinsky, Fokine and Nijinsky would soon use the devise for the ballet Petroushchka with remarkable success).
The second movement was thrilling as William de Pasquale, the acting concertmaster, played upon his specially tuned fiddle in the best Italian scordatura tradition and truly created the impression that death was among us (the movement is subtitled "Friend Death Comes to Call"). For whatever acoustical reason this tuning of the violin one half step higher never quite achieves the proper effect on recordings, but a good live performance like this one really chills the blood. I could observe other members of the violin section watching Mr. De Pasquale in rapt admiration as he brilliantly performed on both this special instrument and his own (tuned normally). The real test of a new Mahler conductor is the phrasing in this tricky movement. Early on there is a disjointed phrase for the strings that most leaders play without emphasis. Mr. Jarvi brought out the herky-jerky quality particularly well and helped to emphasize its relative importance with exaggerated gestures. When this phrase is repeated towards the end of the movement the woodwinds continue to play in the dotted fashion while the strings intone in a broadly lyrical flowing manner. This is the high point of this entire symphony and most conductors miss it. Jarvi was not only aware of the importance of this phrase, but exhorted a particularly lovely sound out of his gorgeous string section and instantly made me a believer in his potential and intellectual approach to music most likely learned in many sessions back home in Tallinn with his illustrious dad.
For this contrasting conception to hold one must conduct the third movement, Mahler's own choice as the most beautiful that he ever wrote, in a practically religious fervor of beauty and this was perhaps beyond the means of a substitute not able to spend much preparatory time with his troops, however the orchestra under Mr. Jarvi played a fine performance of this magical movement, it just begged for more of the sublime of which I know that they are capable. Schoenberg once said of Siegfried Wagner that it was unfair that the public judged him on the level set by his father, but after hearing the first two movements of the Mahler played so perceptively, I immediately expected more from this gifted acolyte. There was one shining moment, the fanfare near the very end so reminiscent of the world of the Third Symphony, when Juliane Banse made her regal entrance in a glowing flame colored gown, thus solving the problem of what to do with her before her fourth movement solo.
Unfortunately the entrance was anticlimactic as the performance was a non-event. Ms. Banse, an opera singer according to the program notes, was virtually inaudible throughout and her voice when it made its way out to us had no emotive power or timbral richness. Performance tradition has evolved this child's view of Heaven as either a narrative by the child herself or by a grandmotherly figure of goodness and comfort. Ms. Banse did not convey either persona and the movement was a limp ending to an otherwise hearty performance. What will remain in my mind long after this night is the tremendous potential of Mr. Jarvi who I think with time can be a major force on the world's stages as long as he can properly assert his strong conceptions of the classics. Congratulations Neeme, he will make you proud.