Seattle Symphony Orchestra Fights Bloated Mahler Symphony to Something Better Than a Draw

Gerard Schwarz's season-ending Mahler performances with SSO are reliable triumphs. This was no exception.

To enjoy the glories of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 3 in D Minor, you have to get past its hollow histrionics, its twee nostalgia, a boys' choir imitating bells, and the finale's saccharine piety and hopelessly inadequate climax. Just because it's Mahler's weakest, the Third makes an interesting test for a conductor, and I was eager to hear what Gerard Schwarz, whose season-ending Mahler performances with the Seattle Symphony are reliable triumphs, could make of it last week.

He and the orchestra met the challenge and gave a compelling and memorable performance of this longest of all standard-repertory symphonies. In a way that feels more than a bit calculated, the composer inflated the 100-minute, six-movement piece with devices that had worked in his first two symphonies, but as his canvas grew more pretentious, his musical ideas got dumber: The innocent, folky tunes, some of which sound like they were fished out of Franz von Suppé's wastebasket, curdled into cuteness; the apocalyptic climaxes became empty noise; the epic length turned self-indulgent. (As if he realized this, Mahler next took a radically different path with his smaller-scaled, genial Fourth.)

The music keeps interrupting itself, as though Mahler, half admitting that his ideas in themselves might not hold our attention, falls back again and again on the element of surprise. Schwarz relished these surprises, and played them up—making a sudden loudness an explosion out of near-silence, rendering the second movement's succession of contrasting dance episodes not just as tempo shifts but as cinematic jump-cuts.

Mahler's detailed and elaborate tempo markings would seem to leave a conductor little leeway. He thinks nothing of writing, within one 12-bar passage, the following instructions: Langsam (slow), accelerando (speed up), ritard (slow down), a tempo (back to the earlier speed), langsam, poco accelerando, poco ritard, molto ritard, a tempo, accelerando, ritard. But the trick is to make all this sound smooth and shapely, a natural outgrowth of the expressiveness of the line, rather than halting or mannered. This Schwarz did skillfully and beautifully. (An even more ravishing example of supple tempo nuance was the orchestra's performance a few weeks earlier of excerpts from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier.) And Schwarz didn't hesitate, moreover, to push these instructions to the extreme when the situation demanded: The gloomy dirges were almost immobile with despair, the ecstatic moments hurtled along.

It was in that glutinous finale that this ability not only intensified but truly rescued the music. Schwarz brought it a spacious twilight calm that cut the syrup, and paced the whole 25-minute movement as one gradually, wondrously blossoming span. But no conductor can make an inane passage un-inane, and the final page was again an anticlimax, even with Michael Crusoe firing cannon shots from the timpani. (Mahler's simplistic bass alternation of two notes, bam-boom-bam-boom, makes you think of Mozart's anti-Salieri wisecrack in Amadeus: "Tonic, dominant, tonic, dominant! That's the music of a man who can't get it up!" Yet Shostakovich cribs shamelessly from this ending to close his Fifth Symphony, and pulls it off.)

The only noticeable problems in the orchestra's performance, understandably and forgivably, cropped up here and there among the horn section's grueling, endless exposed passages. On the other hand, trumpeter David Gordon's liquid, serene third-movement solo deserves notice, as do Scott Goff, Nathan Hughes, and Christopher Sereque, playing in flawless, creamily blended unison a melody in the finale given to flute, oboe, and clarinet at once. The guest soloist was contralto Ewa Podles, offering her usual expressive projection and fullness and beauty of sound. Even her very first note, on the word "O," was goosebump-raising.

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