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Pintscher Hérodiade Fragments, Mahler Symphony No. 5 Philadelphia Orchestra, Marisol Montalvo (soprano), Christoph Eschenbach, 19 November 2004 (BJ)


The second new work presented to the city’s audience by the Philadelphia Orchestra in successive weeks proved to offer much more in the way of musical substance than had been the case with Tan Dun's "video concerto" The Map a few days earlier. Matthias Pintscher, a German composer now aged 33, wrote his Hérodiade Fragments five years ago.


Based on texts taken from Mallarmé, the 25-minute work is scored for solo soprano and a large orchestra, and essays a fresh take on the relation between voice and instruments. Pintscher’s conception of the orchestral part as not an accompaniment in the traditional sense but "an acoustically mobile, variable space" holding up a figurative mirror to the vocal line, to match the actual mirror that Herodias is scrutinizing, might have been thought a pretentious conceit–but the power, vividness, and imaginative richness of his music precluded any such conclusion. In the outer sections of the work, the orchestra proceeds mostly in an exclamatory style, implicitly revealing the violence that lay at the heart of Herodias’s and her daughter Salome’s world. These passages were accomplished enough, both in expressive coloration and in the technical skill that allowed the voice to be heard with ample clarity. But it was the more introverted middle section that beguiled most. This intensely hushed meditation, exquisite in texture and incantatory in atmosphere, fully bore out the composer’s declared view of his music as "an ‘imaginary theater’ full of mysteries and secrets."


Pintscher’s idea of "camouflaging sounds . . . so that one can never exactly be sure who is playing or where the sound is coming from" was brilliantly realized on this occasion through Christopher Eschenbach’s collaboration with the young American soprano Marisol Montalvo, who sounded as stunning as she looked, and who dovetailed her phrases with those of the orchestral soloists to magical effect. There have, it is true, been false dawns before. But I do not think it excessively rash to suggest that Pintscher’s is the most arresting compositional voice to have emerged from Germany since Hans Werner Henze.


After intermission, Eschenbach led a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony that, characteristically and rewardingly, gave expressive freedom and technical daring a clear priority over considerations of mere safety. Spearheaded from bar one by David Bilger’s masterful trumpet solo, this may not have been one of the maestro’s most polished performances, but any shortcoming in that direction was more than made up for in imaginative potency, emotional depth, and sheer consuming rhythmic impulse. There were many beauties to be relished along the work’s path, and the gloriously uninhibited dash to the finishing post drew a correspondingly spontaneous response from the audience.


Bernard Jacobson

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