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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

 



Berlioz and Mahler: Cynthia Phelps, viola, New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel, conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 28.05.2006 (BH)




Berlioz:
Harold in Italy, Symphony in Four Parts for Orchestra with Solo Viola, after Byron, Op. 16 (1834)

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major (1888; rev. 1893-1906)


Given the forest of microphones hanging above the heads of the musicians and scattered among them onstage, perhaps a recording is in the cards of Lorin Maazel’s spectacularly conceived Mahler First Symphony. I hope so, since it is worth archiving. (Editor’s note: this concert will be available on DG Concerts and be available on iTunes.) Whatever one might think of Maazel’s Mahler – and I know plenty of listeners (not me) whose reactions range from disinterest to skepticism to outright contempt – he has a keen empathy for this particular piece. Never using a score, he must have thousands of details committed to memory, all of which add up to something ravishing, dramatic, sublime. I’ve already raved on and on about it when it was presented as the season opener last September and this third hearing only reconfirmed those impressions.


It continues to be heartening to hear the Philharmonic sounding magnificent, even nearing the end of the season when fatigue can test even the finest players. Let’s mention the entire horn section, beginning with principal Philip Myers, and including Jerome Ashby, L. William Kuyper, R. Allen Spanjer, Erik Ralske, and Howard Wall. They created their own marketing team in the final bars, when Maazel had them stand as they belted out the final triumphant theme like war veterans receiving medals. The friend with me, loathe to stand up indiscriminately at concerts, was on his feet after the crashing conclusion, cheering as loudly as the rest of the crowd. (This bracing performance did much to compensate for the loss of the previously scheduled world premiere of a new piece by Peter Lieberson, with vocalists Gerald Finley and Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, now planned for a future season.)


Berlioz’s Harold in Italy predates the Mahler by fifty years, yet there is much of the latter’s unconventional orchestration, not to mention a bit of oddball structure. The piece was commissioned by Niccolo Paganini, who was disappointed in the result since the viola has a somewhat less blazing role than it might in a conventional concerto. Indeed, often the viola is almost a bystander, raising its hand to be heard above the orchestral din, but not insisting if Berlioz has other ideas.


In the opening “Harold in the Mountains,” Cynthia Phelps’ gorgeous sound seemed a bit muted, but again, the viola here isn’t intended to preen a lá Tchaikovsky. The second movement, “Procession of pilgrims chanting the evening prayer,” showed off the rest of the strings, while Phelps offered a pleasantly briny effect for the striking arpeggios that threaten to outstay their welcome. (To be fair, some might say they actually do.) The third movement, “Serenade of an Abruzzi highlander to his mistress,” was notable for Phelps’ velvety mute in the final few measures. In the final “Brigands’ orgy,” the orchestra raged on and on, playing with heartfelt abandon under Maazel’s taut direction. Only in the last five minutes does the viola squeeze in a few measures. Thanks to private donors, Ms. Phelps’ position as principal has been named the “Mr. and Mrs. Frederick P. Rose Chair” and seeing her standing there ever-so-patiently I couldn’t help but chuckle, “Well, couldn’t they have given her one?”



Bruce Hodges


 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)