Tennstedt Conducts Mahler 1st & 8th Symphonies

by | Dec 27, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Tennstedt Conducts Mahler 1st & 8th Symphonies

MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D Major; Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major, “Symphony of a Thousand”
Performers: Chicago Symphony Orchestra (No. 1)/ London Philharmonic Orchestra (No. 8)/ Julia Varady, Jane Eaglen, and Susan Bullock, sopranos/ Trudeliese Schmidt and Jadwiga Rappe, altos/ Kenneth Riegel, tenor/ Eike Wilm Schulte, baritone/ Hans Sotin, bass/ Eton College Choir /London Symphony Chorus/ Malcolm Hicks, organ/ Klaus Tennstedt cond.
Studio: EMI Classics 2-DVD 0946 67743 9
Video: Color 4:3 
Audio: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.0
Length: 62:00; 87:34
Rating: ****

Taped 31 May-4 June 1990. The Mahler D Major Symphony under the late Klaus Tennstedt (d. 1998) and the Chicago Symphony proves expansive, exhilarating Mahler. As directed by Rodney Greenberg, the footage is all about the gawky, ailing Tennstedt and his relationship to the music, the imminence of the divine in the lanky, suffering body. Many of the composition shots are superimpositions of Tennstedt’s shudding or quivering frame set against the particular instrument-clarinet, harp, tympani, flute, French horn, harp–through which he sings the musical line. The entire Langsam Schlepped, wie ein Naturlaut of the first movement is an obvious birth process, Tennstedt’s face and body contorted with labor pains.

Fixated on the score before him, the bespectacled Tennstedt urges every possible nuance out of this First Symphony, stretching the musical line, savoring the inverted pedal, in a way we would have attributed to Celibidache, had he too so favored this music. The camera work is facile enough, lighting upon the various orchestral colors at the precise moments; but more often, the camera is about Tennstedt as he becomes increasingly dynamic, forcing the players to look at him despite his vague beat and over-wrought emotionalism. He takes the repeat in the first movement, so it extends to almost 18 minutes of mysticism and longing in the midst of Nature’s harvest. The Mahler melody from Songs of a Wayfarer gushes forth; later, when musing “under the Linden tree” in the third movement, Tennstedt’s face becomes ecstatic in its resignation. By the last movement, we are in the throes of apocalypse or revelation, perhaps a distinction without a difference. The CSO brass has run amok, and Tennstedt wants even more. Urgency, urgency–everything has been given over to the poignancy of the moment. When the final chord sounds, Tennstedt is a skinny scarecrow of sweat and smiles, the audience beside itself with grateful emotions.

The Mahler 8th (27-28 January 1991) confronts Tennstedt with massive forces, and the camera shows us just how dense is the score, with soloists jammed into the confines of Royal Festival Hall. The camera pans along behind the choristers, making Tennstedt look like a prophet in the middle of a sea of humanity. Set as a sort of symphonic oratorio, the music is a testament to the breadth of Mahler’s own culture, which runs to antiquarianism and to Goethe, a kind of contrived mysticism. A fierce determination suffuses Tennstedt’s face. Tripping figures, violin soli, pianissimo choral parts, suspended disonances; often, the sound content points forward to Berg and to Ligeti. Tennstedt’s baton works feverishly to keep a clear beat and cue the various entries. A martial figure, typical Mahler, emerges, short-lived, because the music – through the vocal soloists – wants to rise above the mortal coils. Young boys’ voices collide the tympani, and the harmonies clash, pandemonium in heaven. The upward march resumes, and with each application of the Come, Creative Spirit invocation, the appeal becomes more urgent, more of a collective shriek, Whitman’s barbaric yawp. At the climactic cymbals crash, the camera deliberately blurs the image. Tympani juxtaposed with eight French horns, then the vocal soloists in exalted appreciation of cosmic harmony. The orchestra, with organ obbligato, provides a starry excursion, and we might wonder if Mahler is Apollo or merely the errant Phaeton. As pretentious as I find much of this music, that last rocket of voices and orchestra does move me.

The hour-long Part II is an another exalted meditation, this time from Goethe’s Faust, which Liszt quoted in more laconic terms at the end of his A Faust Symphony. We get to appreciate the individual vocal soloists more directly, although none of them sings a melody I’d care to whistle. The orchestral accompaniment is infinitely more interesting, with flute, percussion, woodwind choirs, and brass reminiscent of the G Major Fourth Symphony. The female vocal trio with flute and string accompaniment has a vague resemblance to moments from Lakme, until the Mahler pentatonic scales kick in. The camera moves through the densities of orchestration, the mandolin and boys’ choir, all in the attempt to restore our world to pre-Lapsarian splendor. Mater gloriosa, heavenly harps, all the trappings. If it all just doesn’t work, it is no fault of Tennstedt and his committed forces; but for my taste, the solipsistic piece collapses on its own sanctimony. [And its slowed-down-to-a-crawl tempi…Ed.] The London audience loved it all, however, my snipes notwithstanding.

— Gary Lemco

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