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Still Another BPO Knockout


Aga Mikolaj (Foto Werneke)
Aga Mikolaj (Foto Werneke)

In the beginning, and in a hopeful mood considering all the snow on the ground, we thrilled to “Frühlingsstimmen” (Voice of Spring), one of the most familiar of the hundreds of waltzes by Johann Strauss the Younger, during Sunday’s third of Boston Philharmonic’s latest series. The orchestra was in excellent form, and, under Benjamin Zander’s direction, the 35-year-old ensemble once again delighted the large Sanders crowd.

The rhythmic command was especially impressive for the confident control of rubato and tempo changes and even the Viennese anticipations of the second beat (by hardly more than a 32nd). It was a delight to watch Zander’s scrupulously clear stick being so carefully followed by the ensemble with total attention. (It sounds silly to point to Zander’s teacup finger, because so many conductors do this, but I well remember when, at the Conductors Institute in 1989, I was ordered to wrap my baton hand with a bandage.)

Soprano Aga Mikolaj has a warm, full voice that reminded me of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and it wasn’t surprising to find that Mikolaj had studied with her. Her sound includes all the richness needed for Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, yet also sustains the lightness and brightness of the child’s vision of heaven in the last movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. The Strauss songs carry the bigger burden of the two. Yesterday’s performance brought out the clarity of distantly related pure triads in the first song, “Frühling” (Springtime), with a complex texture of strings blanketed by wind sound. In the second song, “September,” there was also a fine horn solo, and in “Beim Schlafengehen,” after low-register string chords in heavy texture, the elegant violin solo evoked admiration from the singer “im Zauberkreis der Nacht.” This nighttime is warmed by a pianissimo D-flat-major chord in the widely spaced full orchestra.

Having little new to say about Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, I nevertheless admired this traversal with complete absorption. Zander injected wit into the final measures of the first movement with a perfectly timed accelerando and crescendo that Haydn would have loved. I might add that this was the first time I’ve ever heard a performance where the injunction Schalltrichter auf! (bells up!) was followed in the horn section, and it makes a startling difference. Because this is the only one of Mahler’s symphonies to omit trombones and tuba, the remaining horns fill those roles from time to time, and their most violent moments are in the third movement. This slow movement is probably the most lovable of all such in Mahler (even more than “Der Einsame im Herbst,” the second song in Das Lied von der Erde), and the one most closely akin to late Beethoven in soul and sensibility—others have pointed out how the double-variation form resembles the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. But about three-quarters of the way through it falls apart, and after the E-major catastrophe only gradually reconstitutes itself as it reaches up to heaven (violins in 11th position) just before the final movement. That Aga Mikolaj was much more easily heard than in the Strauss songs one can put down to Mahler, who wrote in the score that “It is of utmost importance that the singer be accompanied extremely delicately (äusserst diskret).” The note may well have been directed at Richard Strauss, who, with Mahler’s consent, conducted one of the early performances. I even remember seeing a letter from Strauss asking to borrow the sleighbells.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

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