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Concert Review: The High Ground

By Superconductor
Emanuel Ax and Mahler at the White Light Festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: The High Ground

Emanuel Ax played at this year's White Light Festival.

On Sunday afternoon, as their city staggered along its path to recovery from Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers gathered at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater to hear an unusual hybrid of solo recital and concert featuring New York Philharmonic Artist-in-Residence Emanuel Ax and members of that same orchestra in a program billed as Song of the Earth.
The concert (part of this year's White Light Festival)  featured that penultimate work by Gustav Mahler was present , in its currently en vogue chamber arrangement by Schoenberg. This concert was really about establishing connections by placing music in proximity: the Mahler piece was preceded by piano works by Schoenberg and before that, Johann Sebastian Bach.
The Bach work was the E♭ minor Prelude and Fugue (No. 8) from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Mr. Ax has only started playing Bach in public this year, and still uses the sheet music. Nevertheless, the slow, ascending steps of the Prelude led to a climax, followed by the descending, spiraling figures of this complex, fascinating fugue. As always with this artist, there was a beauty of tone and clarity of expression which held the attention rapt in the darkened theater.
On first examination, Schoenberg's Six Little Piano Pieces may appear as jagged shards of atonality, a composer's attempt to destroy or ignore everything that came before in his desire to stimulate new musical thought. However, while these pieces (which range from 30 seconds to two minutes in length) are aphoristic, they are actually dense bullets, each one packed with musical ideas in its brief span. Mr. Ax's performance enabled one to focus on the crystalline beauty of each form, and marvel at the mathematical precision with which Schoenberg grew these small, but mighty musical ideas.
The second half of the concert featured Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde in its chamber arrangement by Arnold Schoenberg. Not quite a song cycle, this work is a setting of six Chinese poems (in German translation) that Mahler originally intended to be his Ninth Symphony. Its six movements form a sort of symphonic structure, and have the same weight and potency as its nine bigger brothers in the Mahler catalog.
Although it would have been preferable to have the full sweep and weight of the Philharmonic behind Russell Thomas' enormous, potent tenor, the singer made the opening Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow moving but never maudlin. Matthias Pintscher and some of the finest Philharmonic musicians (Robert Langevin, Judith LeClair, Philip Myers, among others) provided superb, detailed accompaniment, supported by Mr. Ax' driving piano and a synthesizer meant to duplicate the tones of the rarer harmonium.
The second movement introduced mezzo Tamara Mumford, who produced lush dulcet tones throughout the work. Conductor Matthias Pintscher was successful in presenting the vast, half-hour architecture of the final Abscheid, helped by unflagging performances by the Philharmonic musicians. It helps that members of this orchestra, which Mahler reigned over in the last years of his life, feel a deep, soulful connection to his last works, that result in performances of uncommon spirituality and beauty.

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