Mahler's elusive farewell

Gerard Schwarz conducts the SSO in a somewhat-misjudged movement from Mahler's unfinished 10th symphony, a powerful Prokofiev, and a justly neglected concerto by Julius Conus
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Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony Orchestra

Gerard Schwarz conducts the SSO in a somewhat-misjudged movement from Mahler's unfinished 10th symphony, a powerful Prokofiev, and a justly neglected concerto by Julius Conus

For this tenth anniversary season celebrating its Benaroya Hall home, the Seattle Symphony has shifted some of the usual scheduling patterns. Thus the Mahler blow-out customarily reserved for a season ender was moved to last September, when Gerard Schwarz led a cast of thousands (well, almost) in rafter-rattling performances of the Eighth Symphony (a recording of which the SSO has just released).

But a shorter, concentrated dose of Mahler (the "Adagio" from the Symphony No. 10) is on offer in this week's programs, along with an obscure violin concerto and a beloved Russian classic.

Like the supposedly canonical nine planets (tough luck, Pluto), the association of Mahler's symphony cycle with the number nine used to be firmly entrenched. "It seems that the Ninth is a limit," was the famous dictum uttered by the numerologically prone Schoenberg. "He who wants to go beyond it must pass away." Never mind that Das Lied von der Erde is essentially a song-cycle-as-symphony, while the substantial sketches Mahler left behind for a Tenth Symphony complicate the convenient (if not downright sentimental) image reserved for his Ninth as a resigned farewell to life, fading into motionless silence.

The matter was made even more complicated by various posthumous efforts to develop a complete performing edition of Mahler's projected five-movement work. These have gained a toehold in the repertory — unlike an unpersuasive attempt at a "Beethoven Tenth" — but remain controversial, with conductors firmly split into camps: those who present the Tenth as a complete concert work (usually in the edition painstakingly prepared by Deryck Cooke and lasting more than 75 minutes) and those (like Bernstein) who consider the first movement alone sufficiently representative to perform. This is the so-called Adagio, for which Mahler left a full orchestral draft. (Actually, there's yet another camp — shall we call them "Ninthers"? — that renounces any such attempt as a kind of artistic grave digging.)

Perhaps those lingering uncertainties have something to do with the less-than-convincing performance of the Adagio Thursday night. Mahler seems to return to the leave-taking mode with which he had ended his Ninth, but this time the direction is away from calm resignation, in a series of increasingly restless waves that crest in fierce, shockingly sustained dissonance.

A fundamental miscalculation became apparent early on, with little sense of differentiation between the violas' meandering monologue that opens the movement and the reassuring (though momentary) balm of the Adagio proper. As a result, the performance seemed to bathe in a generic warmth, with plenty of gorgeous blending of strings with John Cerminaro's glowing horn, but lacking the inner tensions on which this music pivots and which are necessary to motivate its climactic shock.

I recall Maestro Schwarz's account of the Ninth a few seasons ago as among the most persuasive Mahler performances I've heard from the SSO, so it was all the more surprising that the subtleties of late Mahler seemed elusive in this case. When the music spins out from its serene center, the effect was of a conversation verging into digression, the contrapuntal clarity of Mahler's thinking lost amid episodic bursts of color. As for that famous cluster chord, anchored by the trumpet's shrieking high A, the nightmare was quickly brushed aside, not so much resolved as simply forgotten for the serenity into which the movement at last sinks.

When the present season was initially planned, the concept had been for an all-Russian program comprising Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale, some Liadov pieces, Scriabin's The Poem of Ecstasy with accompanying new visuals designed by Dale Chihuly, and the Violin Concerto in E minor of Julius Conus (1869-1942). Only the Conus (or, depending on your preferred transcription, Konus) was left standing from that original lineup. Alas, the simple profundity of the Mahler only served to accentuate the emptiness of the Violin Concerto, in which Maria Larionoff, the SSO's new concertmaster, performed as soloist.

Not that there's anything wrong with a palate cleanser, but it's hard to justify reviving the Conus (even if Heifetz was a devoted advocate of the Concerto). There are an awful lot of unjustly neglected pieces, but some are neglected for a reason. Although it continues to serve students well, the Conus is one of those concertos where the main event really is the cadenza. Waiting for it to show up requires getting through bombastic stretches of formula, with melodies pressed to the gushing point: It's like all the bad things that used to be said about Tchaikovsky (and I count myself a huge Tchaikovsky fan).

Still, Larionoff — smartly poured into a clinging maroon-velvet gown — played with lots of conviction. Despite some persistently off-kilter intonation, her big, vibrato-heavy, creamy sound was well suited to Conus's unselfconscious emotionalism. She tackled the fearsome cadenza with theatrical verve. An unreservedly delightful encore followed as Larionoff partnered with Ani Kavafian (serving as guest concertmaster) in Navarra by Sarasate.

The concert's second half included a sequence culled from Prokofiev's various concert suites drawn from his ballet score for Romeo and Juliet. This is music from the mid-1930s, when Prokofiev was retooling himself as a populist and preparing to resettle in the Soviet Union after years of self-imposed exile — in Shostakovich's memorable phrase, landing "like a chicken in the soup" — and initial problems with the thought police delayed production of the ballet itself. (Amazingly, popular as this music has become, the full ballet as Prokofiev originally scored it had to wait until last year to be performed in its entirety, in a new production by Mark Morris and his dance company last summer.)

Schwarz was completely in his element here and shaped a tight and powerful dramatic sequence, from the restless machismo of "Montagues and Capulets" (whose opening dissonances carried an eerie echo of the Mahler heard at the start of the program) to the tenderness of "Romeo and Juliet Parting" and the heart-tugging scene at the tomb. The playing abounded with color and rhythmic vitality, becoming thrillingly aggressive in "The Death of Tybalt." Especially plaintive solos were contributed by violist Susan Gulkis Assadi and guest cellist Doug Davis. Prokofiev writes a brief apotheosis as the music comes to rest at the end of the tomb scene, but it seemed to pale beside the relentless tragedy Schwarz found in the funeral music's grim tread.


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