Review: The MET Orchestra Is a Commanding Force—Even Outside the Opera House
By Joshua Rosenblum, Contributing Writer, June 2, 2017
The MET Orchestra and its popular post-season appearances at Carnegie Hall are a grand opportunity to hear the celebrated ensemble outside of the opera house, center stage, playing symphonic music. Often the programs feature some orchestral song repertoire, as did the all-Mahler lineup on May 31st. No composer is better suited to an evening of song and symphony than Mahler, whose first four symphonies skillfully incorporate portions of his early lieder, to varying degrees. (The song “Das Himmlische Leben” constitutes the entire last movement of the Fourth Symphony.) Conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, who scored a triumph at the Met last year conducting Strauss’s Elektra, led the orchestra in Mahler’s seminal song-cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and tenor Matthew Polenzani as soloists, as well as the composer’s towering Symphony No. 1 in D Major.
“Der Schildwache Nachtlied” (“The Sentinel’s Song”) wasn’t the most flattering opening song for Polenzani—its low-lying tessitura presents projection challenges even for baritones, who more commonly perform these songs. Still, Polenzani skillfully differentiated between the schizophrenic voices inside the sentinel’s head, and the warm glow of his voice was apparent in its middle and upper registers. His high G at the end of the phrase “Er führt den Krieg” (“He makes war”) rang heroically in his prime range. In “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen”, when the maid quietly sings “Welcome, my beloved boy/You have stood outside so long!”, Polenzani’s voice provided the exact sort of cushiony timbre that the rapturous melody demands. And he was an elegant, engaging narrator in the marvelously swirling “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt,” in which a priest, finding his church empty, goes to the river to preach to the fish.
Graham brought her formidable acting skills as well as her well-polished vocalism to bear in “Verlor’ne Müh” (“Wasted effort”), wherein a young lass repeatedly tries to entice her beloved to join her on an outdoor romp. Graham’s allowed her heroine to grow increasingly vexed throughout the number, and ended with her arms folded sulkily, a winningly affectionate parody of girlish petulance. The contrasting “Das irdische Leben” (“Earthly Life”), which tells of a starving child and her inattentive mother, was equally convincing dramatically. At the end of the set, she flexed her comic chops once again in “Lob des hohen Verstandes” (“In Praise of High Intellect”), which tells of a singing contest between a cuckoo and a nightingale, judged by a donkey. Graham’s condcluding “Kuckuck, kuckuck, ija,” delivered with comic vocal hyperbole, brought the house down.
The First Symphony, which took up the second half, substantially incorporates two of the composer’s songs (although they are from the “Songs of a Wayfarer” cycle, not the “Wunderhorn” group). Salonen began the first movement so delicately that one could barely see his arms move on the upbeat, and the pianissimo seven-octave A in the strings materialized seemingly from nowhere, perfectly tuned and with beautifully integrated timbre. Even in rapid passagework or when making short, sharp strokes of the bow, the strings somehow maintained a sumptuous, rounded sound. The race-to-the-finish ending of the first movement was blistering and impeccable.
The second movement Ländler began with gripping aggressiveness in the lower strings, and soon gave way to wondrous sweep, giving a sense that something momentous was happening. The third movement begins with a famous rendition on solo double bass of “Frère Jacques” in minor. Principal bassist Rex Surany gave an unusually soulful rendition of this spotlight moment, with a few tasteful portamento slides. (Surany also received the first solo bow at the end of the concert.) The opening of the tumultuous last movement featured vigorous tremolo strings, huge thwacks on the bass drum, and edifice-like brass playing. Cymbal roll-driven crescendos sounded like cascading sheets of sound. The piece is loud and exciting for extended passages of this movement, but it never seemed wearying like it does in some performances; rather it seemed like a supreme human achievement, in terms of both composition and performance. In the coiled, tense closing measures, it seemed like Salonen had sparks flying off his body.
Salonen can be quite clear and precise as a conductor when he chooses to be—he just doesn’t always choose to. There were a few places where he was more attentive to phrasing and nuance than to clarity, and there were small problems of ensemble. For the vast majority of the night, however, the playing was truly rapturous; the ensemble spoke with a single, magnificent voice, and it was Salonen’s.
The MET Orchestra in concert at Carnegie Hall on May 31, 2017. Esa-Pekka Salonen, Conductor. Guest soloists: Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano; Matthew Polenzani, tenor.
Selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
“Der Schildwache Nachtlied”
“Trost im Unglück”
‘”Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht”
“Das irdische Leben”
“Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt”
“Lied des Verfolgten im Turm”
“Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen”
“Lob des hohen Verstandes”
Symphony No. 1
Cover Photo: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with Susan Graham at Carnegie Hall; photo: Carnegie Hall/Chris Lee.