Review: ASO deftly dispatches tricky Mahler symphony

  • Jon Ross
  • For the AJC
1:45 p.m Friday, Nov. 10, 2017 Living
Jeff Roffman
Cellist Steven Isserlis performs Schumann’s cello concerto with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. CONTRIBUTED BY JEFF ROFFMAN

Exultant trumpets and swirling strings herald the beginning of the end, an ensemble-wide crescendo, starting at the softest dynamics, as the ensemble revs up toward the final timpani hammer blow. In Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, the first movement’s concluding phrases certainly sound like a triumphant ending to a wide-ranging but succinct piece of Romantic dynamism. But the musicians have barely scratched the surface — slightly less than an hour of music remains.

Thursday night at Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by Music Director Robert Spano, tackled what is probably the most divisive and confusing Mahler symphony. Listeners, critics and musicians have been split on the inherent value of the composition. Taken as a whole, Mahler’s 77-minute work begs to be carefully considered and analyzed, instead of offering instant gratification amazements.

Mahler’s first movement of music, which is infused with a propulsive energy, works almost as a numbing agent. The music is at turns ominous and dark, spread across the ensemble in intricate musical passages that function together in lock step. Not one note can be out of place, one entrance missed, and Spano kept careful watch over the sprawling orchestra, maintaining the delicate balance. By the final forte blast, the senses are somewhat dulled from overstimulation.

The innermost three movements, which Mahler gave “night music” programmatic titles, feel darker, nearly sinister. One glaring issue with some performances of the Mahler symphony is that conductors don’t know where to go after the awesome power of the first movement gives way to a subdued, almost inert opening to the second. Spano and company worked hard to give the three inner movements energy and enthusiasm.

Like the first, Mahler wrote the final movement as almost a piece unto itself. The robust violin section, led by concertmaster David Coucheron, began the movement at full volume, navigating intricate phrases, backed by thunder-like timpani cracks. The music quickly became disorienting due to abrupt changes in meter and feel, but the musicians handled these quick, out-of-nowhere alterations with no issue. For the listener, these shifts can come across as disorienting; it’s hard to find solid ground in relation to the beat.

While Mahler’s Seventh required some thinking and processing, Schumann’s cello concerto, performed by guest artist Steven Isserlis on the first half of Thursday’s program, was a visceral joy. A theatrical player, Isserlis wore this joy on his face and in his movements — at one break in the action, he even looked over at Coucheron with a “How lucky are we?” glance.

There’s a delicious harshness to his low notes, with his percussive attack giving the music a sandpaper grit. As he ascends, this grit washes away, but the depth and broadness remain. His tone is disarming — warm and inviting but with a taut, astringent edge.

For an encore, Isserlis chose an unaccompanied, introspective arrangement of “Song of the Birds” by Pablo Casals, which is based on a Catalan folk song. Isserlis cradled the simple melody, accented by vaporous arpeggios, with an exquisite tenderness. This was the polar opposite of his fiery, virtuosic Schumann performance, but it was no less impassioned or brilliant. The ASO on Thursday buffeted its ranks with myriad musicians for the highly publicized, and brilliant, Mahler, but in that simple encore, Isserlis stole the show.

8 p.m. Nov. 9. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Nov. 11. $42-$107. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.atlantasymphony.org.

Sugarland reunited to play for the first time in five years on Nov. 8, 2017.
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