As part of its “Mahler Unleashed” festival, New England Conservatory presented the NEC Symphony, under the direction of David Loebel, performing Messiaen’s L’Ascension and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, with Emily Brand, soprano, in Jordan Hall on Wednesday, November 9. The concert was entitled “Pathways to Heaven,” and this thematic link is the only connection between these two very different works articulated in the program. This program presented two very different sound-worlds, perhaps never to be paired on one program again. For all their differences, I enjoyed both halves.
Messiaen’s L’Ascension (1932), in four movements, or meditations, on the Ascension of Christ, is here presented in its earlier, orchestral version, as opposed to the organ version of two years later. The first movement, “Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à son Père,” recalled an organ voluntary, the sounds of the brass reverberating throughout the hall. This performance showcased these brass instruments and immediately announced the “dissonant” harmonies, the “modes of limited transposition” of Messiaen’s musical language, striking at times a suitably plaintive note that gave the work depth and pathos. The second movement, “Alléluias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel,” began with the winds in a melismatic vein. The English horn solo, performed by Sam Waring, had a wonderfully captivating air of improvisation to it, without ever loosing pace with the orchestra. The muted violins unfurled a scrim of walking figures in their upper register, creating an ambience of serenity that gave way to music of greater agitation, fluttering palpitations expressive of the soul’s longing. The third movement, “Alléluia sur la trompette, alléluia sur la cymbale,” was a more vigorous and forceful declamation; its fiery character highlighted the orchestra playing in a style different from the other movements – more an earthy than an ethereal meditation. The finale, “Prière du Christ montant vers son Père,” was introspective, as befits a prayer, and subdued (an effect of the muted first violins). This movement is marked by a minimalism that struck me as a pre-figuration of the musical language of Arvo Pärt, sharing a similar clarity and emphasis on the repeated tones. The finale built in intensity as the pitches ascended, ending on a note of suspended longing.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 was described in Ellen Pfeifer’s program note as a work which “takes life after death as its subject” and interweaves throughout the movements music that culminates in the finale setting of “Das himmlische Leben” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Mahler’s “humoresque” is set up by the composer’s account to Natalie Bauer-Lechner of this work’s basic tone being an eternally shining, beautiful day. The symphony opened in a manner reminiscent of Beethoven’s scherzos, light-hearted yet vigorous and portending weightier music to come. Indeed, the first movement reached a heavier gravity as the music progressed. The second movement Scherzo featured Michael Rau, concertmaster, played the scordatura violin solo depicting Freund Hain (Death the Fiddler). The turbulence of this Scherzo was intimated, not performed, in this subdued reading. The processional third movement opened with a lush cello choir accompanied by violas and pizzicato bass with harp; the tempo started as stately, then became more sprightly when the music returned to a more humoresque vein. For the finale, Emily Brand, soprano, gave a beautifully phrased rendering of “Das himmlische Leben, by turns happy and wistful. Unfortunately there were a few balance issues, with Brand being overpowered by the volume of the orchestra.
On the whole, this reading of Mahler was extremely accomplished and, well, nice. (From Pfeifer’s note, I infer that this reading was David Loebel’s goal.) If we return to Mahler describing this symphony to Natalie Bauer-Lechner, quoted in the program, it begins with “the undifferentiated blue of the sky” but then proceeds to one moment of “overcast and uncannily awesome” which is “suddenly sinister to us” and being “overcome by a shudder of Panic dread,” as well as a Scherzo “so mystical, confused and uncanny that it will make your hair stand on end.” The description Mahler offers is more angst-ridden, ambivalent (or, better, polyvalent). I largely missed the Unheimlich last night. Of course, why Mahler’s vision of Heavenly life should be uncanny is a much larger question — perhaps to be broached at upcoming symposia on Mahler to be held in NEC’s Pierce Hall on the afternoons of November 30 and December 4. While I enjoyed last night’s concert, I missed the intensity of more turbulent readings. Seneca wrote Non est ad astra mollis e terris via (There does not exist an easy path from earth to the stars); Mahler, I think, had more in common with Seneca’s Megara in the Hercules Furens – even in the sunny humoresque of Symphony No. 4.