I was interested in last night's concert more than usual, as the program featured a Mahler work that I hadn't heard before: Des Knaben Wunderhorn, or "The Youth's Magic Horn," a collection of songs that inspired Mahler throughout his career. But before I could experience the thrill of "new" Mahler, there was the small matter of Beethoven's Symphony No. 2.
I played Beethoven's 2nd with NYRO a few years ago, so I'm more than a little familiar with the music. I spent most of the first half of the concert comparing the Philharmonic's (and Sir Colin Davis's) interpretation with ours. Davis had a sparing conducting technique for the Beethoven. He rarely used his left hand, and doing little more with his right than keeping the beat and giving an occasional cue. The orchestra showed a good dynamic contrast throughout the work, and I noticed a different bowing than NYRO's for a critical section of the second movement. I had trouble paying attention for the last movement as I was trying to suppress a cough until the end of the piece. Still, it was a energetic reading of the piece that reminded me how much I enjoyed playing it.
I knew of the Wunderhorn as a source of material for Mahler's symphonies, but not as a stand-alone work. The texts are sad, funny, and slightly profane, with words that nearly beg to be set to music. As the Philharmonic's program notes mentioned, many composers utilized the poems, including Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Mahler incorporated some of the poems into his symphonies, and the rest became a song cycle. I especially enjoyed "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" ("St. Anthony of Padua's Sermon To The Fishes") as I recognized the music immediately. Like many other composers (Bach, Handel, Beethoven, and Mozart, just to name a few off the top of my head) Mahler was not above reusing his music in different works. I'd forgotten that Mahler also used the music from this song setting as the third movement of his Symphony No. 2. "Revelge" ("Reveille") and "Der Tamboursg’sell" ("The Drummer Boy") were haunting, with martial fanfares posed against mournful melodies and lyrics. "Lob des hohen Verstandes" ("Praise from an Advanced Intellect"), which described a singing contest between a cuckoo and a nightingale judged by a donkey, was as funny as it was musical. Clarinetist Mark Nuccio deserved recognition for his role as the cuckoo. And I liked the interplay between soloists Dorothean Roschmann and Ian Bostridge, who acted out some of the dialogue in the texts in addition to their singing. At first they were hard to hear over the orchestra but their voices grew stronger throughout the performance. Davis kept the entire ensemble balanced and kept the orchestra out of their way. I might have to seek out a recording of Des Knaben Wunderhorn to add to my already-extensive and ever-growing collection of Mahler's music.