Philadelphia Orchestra's program perfection

Christiane Karg performed the soprano solo in the final movement of Mahler's "SymphonyNo. 4."
Christiane Karg performed the soprano solo in the final movement of Mahler's "SymphonyNo. 4."
Posted: October 08, 2013

Though the Philadelphia Orchestra enjoys many blue-sky moments these days, Friday's start to the weekend's subscription series had an especially rosy sense of well-earned arrival.

Its impromptu concert Wednesday at Verizon Hall that followed the cancellation of its Carnegie Hall opening was a roaring feel-good public relations success. And then on Friday, the orchestra was doing what it does best, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting Mahler's heaven-bound Symphony No. 4 (with many saints populating the final movement), Britten's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell (minus the tiresome narration when it's performed as A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra), and the Strauss Oboe Concerto with star principal Richard Woodhams.

Could it have gone better even in one's dreams? Not mine. I'd been enjoying a just-released disc on the Wigmore Hall Live label by the much-discussed young soprano Christiane Karg, thinking I'd have to wait years for a chance to hear her live. Then I discovered she's the soprano soloist in Mahler's final movement. Luxury casting indeed, thanks to Nézet-Séguin's opera career.

As a Mahler interpreter, Nézet-Séguin has burgeoned. His 2004 Montreal recording of the Symphony No. 4 is the primary fodder for his detractors - a slowish rookie performance with safe interpretive choices. On Friday, he seemed to have gone to the other extreme with freewheeling tempo and dynamics changes. Yet a mere glance at the score reveals that steady-tempo Mahler performances ignore the composer's every-few-bars markings that give the piece intense light and shade.

In seasons past, Christoph Eschenbach's Mahler 4th was similarly observant but tightly managed. By contrast, Nézet-Séguin's had playful fantasy with a nightmarish edge. His approach took a few minutes to settle in, given the first movement's more wind-heavy palette and aggressive incidental solos. Concertmaster David Kim's second-movement folk fiddle solos were phrased with intentional eccentricity. Notes glided into one another - referencing portamento techniques common in Mahler's time. Climaxes were enormous, such as when the gates of heaven open in the third movement.

Then came soprano Karg with a voice reminiscent of the late Lucia Popp and fine German diction projecting the text's childlike vision of heaven, but with adult insights. The final notes had an unusually long, quiet buzz into the ether, but that's just what the score asks for.

The Strauss concerto, a pleasant, unambitious post-retirement piece, arose from the more-is-more school of concertos, made even harder to sustain by its restrained orchestration. Woodhams went beyond his customary artistry with a special, confiding quality in his soft playing.

The Britten variations, with their dissection of orchestral possibilities, felt as coloristically alluring as Ravel, though the independent-minded components don't interlock nearly so neatly. Nézet-Séguin kept a firm hold of the underlying logic while the orchestra played the daylights out of the piece.


dstearns@phillynews.com

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