Above: Valery Gergiev leading The Munich Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall; photo by Steve J Sherman
Wednesday April 5th 2017 – The Munich Philharmonic conducted by Valery Gergiev performed their second of two performances to a sold out crowd in Stern Auditorium in Carnegie Hall; today’s concert featured the lovely German soprano Genia Kühmeier. It was the first time I had heard both the Munich Philharmonic and Genia Kühmeier; I had only ever heard Mr. Gergiev conduct Russian music previously.
The program consisted of Debussy’s groundbreaking Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Schubert’s uncommonly played Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, D. 417, “Tragic”, and Mahler’s fantastic Symphony No. 4 in G Major. Before jumping into the performance, I wanted to point how well these works go together. The Debussy has a dreamy quality that is mirrored in the Mahler. The Schubert directly following the Debussy sets up the same contrast of fantasy and death pervasive in the Mahler.
Before coming to this concert, I had heard five performances of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in the past year with five different conductors and orchestras. It was interesting hearing another when the piece was so fresh in my head. This piece is really is when Debussy out of Romanticism. It is based on a controversial Mallarmé poem, but it is also well known in dance due to Nijinky’s scandalous choreography.
The Munich players sounded absolutely brilliant, managing to sync well and produce a huge range of color. While I typically think of Debussy being playful and sensual, this interpretation was weighty. Mr. Gergiev emphasized the silences, pauses, and counterpoint. One of my favorite moments of this performance was the pause directly between the flute’s opening solo and the harp’s entrance. Here the silence was elongated, building tension to make the harps feel like a drop of water rippling through a cloudy pond.
Instead of the flirtatious and dance-like quality I associate with this piece, Mr. Gergiev’s interpretation felt like the way Rothko paintings look: having infinite varieties of subtle colors that melt into different grades ever so slowly. The Munich players had a warm tone that fit the music well. I haven’t heard Debussy played in that glacial way before, but the musicians’ tone held it together.
Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, D. 417 “Tragic” was a new piece to my ears. Mr. Gergiev had a straightforward account that highlighted all of the beautiful contrapuntal writing and emphasized the form. Rhythmically he was much tighter here, letting the first movement unfold naturally. The second movement was the most successful. I couldn’t help but smile when I heard the first notes, as the opening lines directly mirror his later piano work Impromptu No. 2 from Four Impromptus, D. 935. The orchestra managed to get large dynamic range out of this movement, which was particularly appealing.
The piece that attracted me to this performance was Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G Major. It did not disappoint. The first movement was one of the most fun parts to listen to of the entire concert. Hearing any Mahler live is always a pleasure, but particularly when you have musicians who can play this well. For the Mahler, the forces of the orchestra changed significantly and as a result the players had a fuller sound; particularly, the low notes felt fleshed out.
Mr. Gergiev led a colorful first movement with extreme dynamic shifts. This helped play up the contrast between the wild death melodies and the woodsy child-like fantasies. When the two themes finally blended together in the development, I felt like I was in some sort of winter fairy-nightmare. Every time the main thematic material returned the sensitivity of both the orchestra and conductor led it to shift ever so slightly. Thus it sounded continually renewing, whereas some performances can get tiresome as the piece goes on. Particularly impressive were the winds, who seemed to cover an intense range of color and provide ferocity when needed.
Above: soprano Genia Kühmeier, photographed by Tina King
While the second movements and third movements were played well, the highlight of the entire concert was the fourth movement. Ms. Kühmeier managed to accomplish two seemingly disparate tasks simultaneously that few can achieve when performing Mahler. On one hand she sounded folksy, almost like someone walking through the woods yodeling melody in the Bavarian countryside. At the same time, she managed to have a supple, ethereal tone. The wide dynamic range of the orchestra made a good partner, ending in a whisper. But it was Ms. Kühmeier’s tone that made the closing lines “Cheer the senses, so all awakens to joy” feel true.
The performance was live-streamed and a delayed broadcast will be available for streaming on medici.tv for the next three months. While I wholeheartedly encourage this practice, it was distracting to be able to hear the radio headset of one of the video cameramen through the entirety of the Mahler. Audience members around me kept turning their heads back to find out where the noise was coming from; luckily in the end it was Mahler’s fantasy world that held our attention.