Tom Strini

De Waart, MSO shape Schumann, Mahler symphonies

By - Oct 14th, 2011 06:38 pm
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Gustav Mahler


Robert Schumann

Mahler’s big, passionate, noisy Symphony No. 1 and Schumann’s big, passionate slightly less noisy Symphony No. 4 filled Friday’s Milwaukee Symphony program.

They have in common a Romantic willfulness. Both composers twisted Classical-period forms almost beyond recognition. And both employed everything from great blasts to the most fragile melody in order to harness their volcanic feelings to sound.

A conductor can’t just beat time and make any sense of such music. It calls for caressing, urging, hushing, sighing, rushing, shaping and, most of all, giving way to emotional abandon even while maintaining technical discipline.

De Waart got all that exactly at Friday’s matinee. I heard it especially in the translucency of Schumann’s thickly-scored symphony, which can so easily turn muddy. De Waart balanced the many voices in a way that made them all audible, let the harmony glow, and put the most important line (or lines) to the fore.

He enforced a level of rhythmic clarity and precision that went a long way toward maintaining the identity of melodic materials as they emerged in various guises. Echo and foreshadowing across movements figure prominently in both works. De Waart made them legible.

The solo violin obbligato (nice job, Frank Almond), for example, is an elaborate ornament to the middle section of Schumann’s second movement. It re-emerges in the Trio of the ensuing Scherzo as a main theme, with the full section playing it. Almond thought ahead when he played it solo, the section listened carefully and then executed well, and they made it easy for us to make the connection. Thus, we could perceive an important unifying thread in a fantastical, tangent-happy composition.

Pairing these works on the same program illuminated both. Schumann sounds like a precursor to Mahler in the way he treats Classical forms as jumping-off points, as far more open-ended than Beethoven treated them. Mahler takes it further, with the advantages of a much more vivid way with orchestration and more sheer sonic daring. For example, in his remarkable funeral march movement, Mahler drifts into polytonality as he overlays klezmer melodies with a dirge treatment of Frère Jacques. This remains startling music; it must have shocked the world in 1889.

In such passages, the MSO played boldly, even brashly, but always in control. The players were fearless with this difficult music in part, I believe, because de Waart’s conception made the music’s impetus clear at all times. This counts not only in the hell-for-leather climaxes, but also in the quiet, static moments, when Mahler makes time stand still. Without such moments, the climaxes would become tedious bombast. Mahler, de Waart and the MSO gave both due measure and proper shading, and because of that pure sound took on weight and meaning beyond words.

This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15. Call the Marcus Center box office. 414 273-7206, for tickets.

Display image: Zwei Minner in Betrachtung des Mondes, by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).


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