A gutsy Mahlerian return
for a long-gone maestro
2005 Newsday review
No one can accuse conductor Riccardo Chailly of lacking bravado. After an absence of 20 years, he chose for his return to the New York Philharmonic Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7—and this with the orchestra of eminent Mahlerians Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein. (Mahler, too, was the Philharmonic’s music director from 1909 to 1911.)
What’s more, the Seventh is a recalcitrant work that guards its secrets jealously. While Chailly did not quite make a coherent whole of this sprawling symphony, Tuesday’s Avery Fisher Hall audience rewarded him with a long, rapturous ovation.
His reading was full of striking details and captivating energy: the twittering winds and watery, otherworldly sounds of the cow bells in the first “night music” movement; the feathery licks of the strings in the scherzo (marked “shadowlike”); and the galumphing, unseemly jollity of the finale, poisoned with the occasional searing dissonance. Chailly abandoned himself body and soul to the music, crouching and twirling with Bernstein-like exuberance.
The opening work in Thursday’s program, Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten,” offered a stark contrast. Scored for winds and chime, it layers simple musical elements (downward intervals, gently rocking figures) in a slithering haze that gradually builds to a deep, undulating mass. Chailly and the Philharmonic found the mysterious core of this music, suspended between stillness and turmoil.
A radically different mode of spirituality informs Modest Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Dances of Death,” performed in Dmitry Shostakovich’s 1962 orchestration. Death here is no metaphysical abstraction but a relentless, malevolent being who scoffs at feeble humanity.
Making her New York Philharmonic debut in the Musorgsky was mezzo-soprano Marina Domashenko, who sang with creamy, sinuous tone and arresting acuity. Willowy and elegant with a briskly assured manner, Domashenko made an unnerving interpreter of this ghoulish work, usually the province of low male voices. She offered a mockingly seductive lullaby in the first song and a taunting call to arms in the cycle’s conclusion, seconded by the vicious drum rasps and chilly, nightmarish soundscape wrought by the orchestra.
Thursday’s concert concluded with Igor Stravinsky’s complete score for The Firebird. Ballets without dancers are a cruel deception: a carnal art reduced to musicians in penguin suits on a bare stage, reinforcing the pious delusion that music represents the “essence” of the form while bodies are incidental. (To be sure, ballet company pit bands can be dreadful, perpetrating nasty hoaxes of their own.)
Still, when an orchestra plays with the kind of entrancing vibrancy that Chailly drew from the Philharmonic, actual dancing seems expendable There was a toe-tapping lilt even to the nervous, rumbling figures with which The Firebird opens. Ravishing flute and violin solos glowed first with a muted forest sheen, then with the light of day; trembling strings built from the merest wisp of sound to a final, blazing radiance.
Judging by the audience and musicians’ delight, New Yorkers won’t have to wait 20 more years for Chailly’s return to the Philharmonic.
THE NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC. Riccardo Chailly conducting. Attended Tuesday and Thursday at Lincoln Center. Final concert tonight. Visit www.newyorkphilharmonic.org or call 212-875-5656.