Salonen Conducts the MET Orchestra in Mahler, Off and On

Wednesday, May 31, 2017: Carnegie Hall

The MET Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen, Conductor; Susan Graham, Mezzo-Soprano; Matthew Polenzani, Tenor

All-Mahler Program: Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn; Symphony No. 1

Esa-Pekka Salonen hasn’t got a shred of authentic Mahlerian schmaltz in him. The results, in the opening selection of ten songs from the folk poetry anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn, were just strange. Tempos were often blisteringly quick, even in numbers such as “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht” or “Rheinlegendchen,” which ought to flow in an easy Ländler rhythm. The oddness was compounded by having tenor Matthew Polenzani on hand to sing half the songs. Mahler wrote none of them for tenor; they are all for baritone. A mezzo soprano can sing them easily enough, but for a tenor they need to be transposed, which can be fine with piano accompaniment, but poses problems for the orchestra since it alters the tessitura of the individual instrumental parts. The result, Polenzani’s weak and scarcely audible lower register aside, and when combined with Salonen’s haste, sounded distinctly uncomfortable.

As for mezzo Susan Graham, she has a lovely voice and knows how to act with it. So she should lose the habit of hamming it up by pantomiming the words. It’s irritating and totally unnecessary. Even more irritating was the fact that she mistimed her entrances in the first two verses of the final song, “Lob des Hohen Verstandes.” They should have stopped and started over, but instead she and Salonen plowed straight ahead, dropping lines along the way. I suppose many in the audience were none the wiser. Ultimately, the entire performance sounded more like a reading rehearsal than something the artists actually thought about and worked on—dismaying.

The symphony was another matter entirely, thank God. As I mentioned, Salonen is not what you might call an idiomatic Mahlerian, but he compensated by making the fast bits as exciting as hell, and the slower, lyrical sections very slow yet extremely detailed as regards balance and color. It was a riveting performance: one which, moreover, respected Mahler’s theatrics—the offstage trumpets at the start, and the horns standing up at the end (OK, they did it later than Mahler instructed, but no harm, no foul). The MET Orchestra is, unquestionably, a great ensemble, with no obvious weaknesses anywhere and a thrillingly full corporate sonority. The finale’s coda brought the house down, providing a physical thrill all too rarely heard these days. In short, Salonen wasn’t afraid to take risks and let go, but smartly, and in Mahler you could scarcely ask for more.

David Hurwitz