at Orchestra Hall

May 31 and June 7

A colleague told me he had put on what he considered to be an excellent record of the Mahler First Symphony recorded by the Chicago Symphony in anticipation of performances of the work under Klaus Tennstedt. After hearing what Tennstedt did with the work, he tossed out the record the next morning.

I understand completely. This is not to take anything away from Solti, Giulini, Levine, Abbado, or any other conductor who may have performed or recorded the Mahler First with the CSO, but Tennstedt’s reading of the work–first heard here nearly five seasons ago–is so original and persuasive that you feel as if you’re hearing the piece for the first time.

No first symphony in the entire repertoire has the grandeur or scope of Mahler’s. Only the Brahms First was as carefully planned out and as fussed over by its composer. Most first symphonies–including those of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert–give little indication of what will follow. Had anything happened to these composers before they moved on, they would be little more than musical footnotes today. Had Mahler stopped after his first, it would still be in the standard repertoire.

Not that the work came easily to Mahler. Fifteen years stood between his initial work on the piece and its final publication. The startlingly original work was titled “Symphonic Poem” for its premiere in Budapest, where it was greeted with hostility and ridicule. Later Mahler added an elaborate program, thinking that might make the point of the music clearer. Then he abandoned the program and one of the movements (an andante known as the “Blumine,” or “flower” movement, which was rediscovered in 1967), and enlarged the orchestration.

In recent years some have argued that the “Blumine” movement, the original orchestration, or the program should be restored. But there is little sense in doing that except to satisfy curiosity or to offer insight into the genesis of a masterpiece. Mahler’s final version is certainly the tightest and most powerful, and modern audiences respond to it in such a way that a program is unnecessary. Mahler was not against the idea of “program” music; he always insisted that his music contained his whole life’s experience and suffering. But he wanted listeners to draw freely from his music, find their own experiences in it, not read into it his interpretation or have him say what they should or shouldn’t hear.

Since EMI was recording the Tennstedt performance for laser and compact disc, bright lights and microphones were obtrusively scattered throughout the hall–which was great for posterity but unfortunate for the audience and the performance. Some of the individual playing was not of the highest caliber, which meant this performance was not up to the unexpectedly letter-perfect one Tennstedt led here a few years ago. But this was still a performance of a lifetime, and Tennstedt’s interpretation was as brilliant as ever–head and shoulders above others more perfectly executed.

During a coarse introduction the strings had trouble maintaining the high A out of which the symphony emerges at Tennstedt’s quiet dynamic level, and the initial horn theme was choppy. Then things settled down to a perfectly charming Viennese lilt, in which every structural detail of Mahler’s portrayal of the countryside was crystal clear. If the string ensembling was not as tight as it could have been, the gorgeous Viennese sound–by far the best sound I have heard the CSO strings produce for anyone–more than compensated. Tennstedt is a master Mahlerian, and his sense of architecture and how the work’s effects and moods fit into the overall plan is unparalleled by any conductor I have heard perform this work, live or recorded. The tension in the buildup and the subsequent arrival at D major was positively orgasmic.

The landler had both guts and a sense of humor, a delicate contrast that Tennstedt controlled with precision, despite a dragging solo horn. The feel and tempo of this movement were both ideal. Tennstedt’s handling of the CSO brass section is amazing–he allows them to be appropriately loud in places such as the finale of the landler, but always keeps them refined and musical, and balanced within the overall orchestral texture. He did not hold them back, as Abbado (or now Barenboim) might have done; he let them gallop–but under tight reins.

The famous children’s nursery round known in English as “Are You Sleeping?” was turned into a satirical funeral march by Mahler for the work’s third movement, and here again Tennstedt’s sense of both its humorous and somber natures was extraordinary, exposing details I have never heard before. The solo bass was flat, but the rhythms and contrasting moods of the piece were meticulously brought out, especially the transition to the street-band section (which was the inspiration for, among other things, the wedding music in The Godfather).

Despite Tennstedt’s unusual sense of refinement, he isn’t afraid to let the orchestra scream if that’s what the music calls for. His opening of the finale–“the sudden outburst of a wounded heart” as Mahler called it–was truly terrifying. (Lorin Maazel, in a performance here four years ago, saw the entire work as an unmusical scream.) He then proceeded to tie up brilliantly all of the work’s seemingly disparate elements into one of the most perfectly realized climaxes one could imagine, constantly revealing new and unusual details along the way.

Tennstedt was back for more Mahler the following week, the Mahler Fourth, with soprano Arleen Auger, who had given a stellar debut recital the weekend before. There were no lights this time, only the usual radio microphones, so the playing was of a higher caliber.

The Fourth is much misunderstood, and is often seen as “light” Mahler. True, it has little of the terror and ferocity of the other symphonies, but it is preoccupied with death, even if from a heavenly point of view. It became the case for a jewel that was precious to Mahler, the song “Das himmlische Leben” (“The heavenly life”), which he did not include in the song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn, probably because he intended to use it as a movement for the Third Symphony. Its subtle effect would have been lost in the enormous scope of the Third, and so it became the basis for the Fourth, a far more appropriate setting.

The opening theme has been described as a “celestial sleigh ride,” with its lyrical flutes and jingling bells–indeed, the entire work has a heavenly aura about it. Things are more down-to-earth in the second movement, which was inspired by Saint-Saens’ famous Walpurgis Night piece Dance macabre and which features a village fiddle, nicely realized by Ruben Gonzalez with a prepared instrument (tuned up a whole tone).

But in many ways the slow movement, inspired by a beautifully carved tombstone that suggested eternity to Mahler, is the most beautiful section of the work. Tennstedt brought the most ethereal quality to the music–it seemed to fade in and out from nothingness. The string playing was gorgeous and set up the most appropriate introduction imaginable to the heavenly finale.

In recent years the pretty but mindless singing of Kiri Te Kanawa and Kathleen Battle in the finale has sounded fine so long as you didn’t know what else was possible with this music. So it was a real shock to hear Auger sing it. Suddenly what had seemed just a frivolous text–painting a silly view of heaven from a child’s point of view–became something much, much deeper. It’s not just that Auger’s singing was glorious in technique and timbre, but that it penetrated both the musical and textual soul of the song. It became instantly clear why Mahler was so fond of it–and why the Fourth has been so misunderstood over the years. The collaboration was ideal for this music, which ended as gently and lovingly as it began–it was a performance of another world.

The other pieces on the two programs were the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto on May 31 and the Haydn Symphony no. 100 on June 7. Both performances were quite well played and musically executed, but they seemed trivial next to the two Mahler gems. I’ve never cared much for the Strauss, which is a very late piece and which has little of the musical substance of his earlier works. Luckily, Ray Still, whose playing has been extremely inconsistent this season, was in top form. If there is one thing the five-year CSO Haydn retrospective is showing us–in addition to proving how few Romantic conductors can convincingly perform Classical repertoire–it’s that some of the biggest Haydn war-horses are among his weakest works. The Military Symphony, despite considerable gusto and lush phrasing on Tennstedt’s part–is about as frivolous as Haydn gets.