Por Gregory W. Bloch
When Mundoclasico.com's intended reviewer became indisposed in a rather dramatic fashion halfway through this performance, I, his guest, was drafted into service. Obedient to duty, I answer the call.
The most thrilling moment of the concert, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the RTVE Symphony Orchestra, was, of course, not during the performance of Mahler's Second Symphony at all, but rather the entrance of Sus Altezas Reales Los Principes de Asturias, amid a shower of paparazzi flashbulbs, police running to and from, and the entire audience murmuring and straining their necks to catch a glimpse of the royal couple and the crowd of government and cultural luminaries surrounding them. The Princess Letizia looked ravishing in a coral and orange silk suit.
After such a beginning, the concert could only disappoint. But actually, the orchestra was quite respectable. Mahler's Second Symphony is a long, strenuous workout, and, with the exception of some painfully out-of-tune piccolos and french horns, the orchestra dealt with its difficulties well. The strings in particular sounded rich and agile. The brass was unimpressive, but adequate, and the woodwinds were inconsistent. The chorus in the final movement (consisting of the combined forces of the Coro de RTVE and the Orfeón Pamplonés) likewise has its flaws -a straining tenor here, a shouting bass there- but all in all had an excellent big sound. My biggest complaint about the chorus was their first entrance, a simply magical moment when the chorus enters almost inaudibly as Mahler instructs, somewhat less magical when at a comfortable mezzo piano as we heard on Thursday.
I have no complaints whatsoever about the lovely contribution of mezzo soprano Jennifer Larmore, whose interpretation of the little children's rhyme that comprises the brief fourth movement ("Urlicht") suggested both innocence and profundity. The soprano Ruth Ziesak doesn't have very much to do in the final movement, but she did it well.
So, with all the performers in every way adequate, why do I still feel that something was missing? I know well that talk of "the ephemeral" and "the indescribable" are dangerous to use in a review -to say that the performance simply lacked "that special spark" requires no evidence and proclaims only the reviewer's pride in his own taste. And yet, Mahler's symphonies, perhaps more than any other symphonic works, should sound like more than the sum of their parts.
A musicologist, Carolyn Abbate, has famously described the sprawling, terrifying first movement (subtitled "Totenfeier" or "Festival of Death") as sounding like a standing in front of a enormous window looking at dancers moving to music that you can't hear. It is a strange interpretation, but one that rings true for many listeners because, for all Mahler's famous disjunction, the overwhelming variety of musical material seems, in a good performance, motivated by some always-obscure logic, or by some grand musical plan that is just out of earshot. What I heard on Thursday night contained many beautiful moments, some powerful big gestures, and some lovely details. But I wonder if someone hearing the work for the first time would have understood why anyone would ever conclude that the symphony was anything more that a collection of these random-seeming passages.
The Princess seemed to have liked it, though.