Symphoria 2016-17 Season: Booklet III: CASUAL IV
April 30, 2017
Our Casual season ends on a high note with the celebratory Magnificat (1723-1732) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). The opening, capped by trumpets and drums, sets us up for a spectacular work—and Bach delivers on the promise. It’s a compact piece, around half an hour—but as conductor John Warren points out, “in its weight and grandeur and contrast, it’s right up there with the B-Minor Mass.” Contrast is a key term. Bach calls on what was, for the times, a relatively large orchestra, with flutes, oboes (doubling oboes d’amore), trumpets and drums, besides the strings and continuo (which includes a bassoon). But he deploys his forces in a variety of ways. “One thing I love,” John says, “is that each solo movement has a different color—a different texture, a totally different combination of instruments.” And as conductor, John gets to “vary the colors even more” by the choice of what instruments to use in the continuo sections. In terms of the work’s orchestral character, the trumpet parts are especially interesting: “Who else but Bach writes for three D trumpets? In Mozart, you might get two C trumpets, and they’re just kind of dotting things. But the trumpet parts in Bach are crazy hard and fast and virtuosic. It’s so exuberant!”
John also suggests paying attention to the way Bach sets his texts. In the fourth movement, “Omnes generationes,” for instance, the “overwhelming repetition” of the primary motive “is literally reflecting the text, ‘All generations will call me blessed.’” Similarly, the festive music at the beginning of the first movement returns at the end of the last to set the words “As it was in the beginning, is now and always.” “It’s the same exact music, so it works very nicely structurally. Bach as we know had very clear forms. But there’s a bit of humor too, I think.”
Nowadays, it’s increasingly rare to hear baroque music performed with large choruses—but don’t let the size of this afternoon’s ensemble fool you into expecting the kind of sludgy, romanticized Bach that was once the norm. John, like so many conductors nowadays, has been influenced by the rise of historically informed performances—and by carefully attending to articulation, note-length, and dynamics, he aims to provide the clarity and nimbleness of a smaller chorus, giving us the best of both worlds.
The program opens with a short symphony for strings by one of Bach’s sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788): the Symphony in A, Wq. 182/4. Those who heard the Haydn Symphony No. 44 at our Casual Concert in January will find themselves in familiar territory, for this afternoon’s symphony manifests many of the same hyperkinetic attributes associated with the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement: the perpetual motion rhythms, the “stark dynamic contrasts,” and most of all what John calls “the shocking harmonic shifts,” which are simultaneously “bizarre” and “very exciting.” C. P. E. Bach’s music is perhaps even more radical than Haydn’s, partly because he throws in more extreme modulations and partly because he drastically minimizes melodic interest. “There’s no long lyric melody the way you would have with Mozart or something a little later or even with some Johann Sebastian Bach. All the motives are very short, a bar or two or even three beats.” Despite its mercurial shifts, though, the work is held together tightly by its sheer momentum.
Between these two high-energy works, we have something radically different: four of the Rückert Songs (1901-02) by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) was a German poet and scholar whose words were set by all the great Austro-German song composers: Schubert, Robert and Clara Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Wolf, Strauss…. But one can argue that the best Rückert settings were those by Mahler, who set ten of his poems at the beginning of the 20th century. Five make up Kindertotenlieder; the other five were not intended as a cycle, and we offer four of them this afternoon.
We often think of Mahler in terms of extravagance and heightened emotion—for good reason, since most of his music pushes extremes. These songs, however, were written in the wake of his Fourth Symphony (his gentlest), and they show the composer at his most discreet, with subdued emotions and scaled-back orchestral resources. Still, for all its temperance, the music is both vivid and profound, and this afternoon’s soloist, Julia Ebner, is enthusiastic about a chance to move from opera (where she does most of her work) to these orchestral art songs, which give her greater opportunity for nuance. The first two songs she’s performing are magical in their delighted response to nature. When Mahler compares artistic creation to the activity of bees in “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder,” for instance, the orchestra buzzes in the background; the scent of linden trees in the second song, “Ich atmet’ einen Linden Duft,” is mirrored by the airy fragrance of the delicate orchestration, which includes a celesta and dispenses with lower strings. Effortless as this second song sounds, though, it sorely tests the singer’s technique. “It sounds as if the vocal line is just wafting and floating through the air, peaceful and tranquil,” says Julia; “but as a singer, I’m thinking about spinning my air constantly. It’s surprisingly challenging to make it appear easy.”
In contrast to this innocence, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” gives us a premonition of the weary isolation heard in the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde. Yet although the text is about death, Julia points out, “the harmony doesn’t sound hopeless in the most depressing lines of lyric. It’s almost as if the narrator is finding peace with this decision.” Certainly, this contemplation of mortality is muted, avoiding the dramatic breast-beating we find, say, in the huge Sixth Symphony, the so-called “Tragic.”
As for “Liebst du um Schönheit?”: it is Mahler’s only love song, a relatively straightforward but still poignant piece written for his wife Alma at the blissful beginning of what was to become a tormented relationship. It’s the only one of the group that was not orchestrated by Mahler. (The orchestral version was put together by Max Puttmann, a man otherwise forgotten). Even if this version lacks Mahler’s orchestral genius, it still makes its mark, and you can well understand why it had the impact on Alma that it did. Mahler had originally hidden the song in a score of Wagner’s Die Walküre, hoping Alma would stumble upon it by accident. As Alma describes it, when his ruse didn’t work, “his patience gave out,” and he flung open the score himself to let the song tumble out. “I was overwhelmed with joy,” she says, “and we played it that day twenty times at least.” When you hear it, you’ll understand why.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org