Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Kaplan’s Mahler: Der Mensch liegt in größter Peinlichkeit

Konzerthaus, 17/2/2013

Mahler: Symphony no. 2 ‘Auferstehung’ (new arrangement for chamber orchestra by Gilbert Kaplan & Rob Mathes)

Gilbert Kaplan, Janina Baechle, Marlis Petersen

Wiener KammerOrchester, Wiener Singakademie

I went to this performance with the lowest expectations I have brought to any concert and it would be unfair to say they were not fulfilled. Gilbert Kaplan, should anybody need reminding, is a Mahler-obsessed multi-millionaire who over the last thirty years has opened his chequebook to the world’s leading orchestras and in the process become the world’s most familiar recreational conductor. The Second Symphony, which Kaplan holds in cultish regard, is the only work in his repertoire and according to this New York Times profile from 2008, he has performed it around a hundred times with close to sixty orchestras, and broken sales records with his recordings. As the Times also notes, Kaplan has received a generous number of glowing reviews, the consensus among them being that whatever technical facility he lacks as a conductor is more than offset by rare critical authority as a Mahlerian. The most widely read of the less flattering notices (which, note, Kaplan dismisses as politically motivated) was penned by no critic, but New York Philharmonic trombonist David Finlayson, and goes about as far in the opposite critical direction as is imaginable. Hence my expectations.

I don’t know Kaplan’s earlier recordings and didn’t have the opportunity to listen to them in the week prior to this concert. I do know that the Wiener KammerOrchester is no second-rate ensemble, though to say here, however, that we might as well have heard a county youth orchestra would be insulting to too broad a swath of young musicians. (It should perhaps be mentioned that the ticket prices were not modest and, unlike in New York, this was not a benefit). But even if the entire thing was ineptly rehearsed, with ensemble hanging throughout by the slenderest of threads, it was at least incontestably all Kaplan’s primitive graft, as wise as it would have been to have a professional assistant lay the groundwork. This is certainly what the Wiener Singakademie has in Heinz Ferlesch, a hard-working and astute choral director, whose tendency to over-rehearse paid badly needed cathartic dividends – the final movement came not a minute too soon and the chorus sounded magnificent. Janina Baechle’s rich mezzo is an ideal fit for ‘Urlicht’ and her sensibilities as a Mahlerian considerably more sophisticated than Kaplan’s, but she sounded in need of a more flowing tempo than he gave her. Mahler 2 at 10:30 in the morning was less kind to Marlis Petersen, a singer I somehow seem to always catch on off-days. Phrasing erratically in thin, stringy voice, she sounded barely warmed up.

This ordeal could surely be matched by no other account, live or recorded, for the liveliest second and third movements in the context of the most swollen overall running time (an astonishing 100 minutes). Moving at a distended crawl, the first movement alone clocked a full half-hour. “According to Mahler, without the right tempo – Mahler's tempo – the rest doesn't matter,” writes Kaplan, donning his cap as megalomaniacal arbiter of the composer’s true intentions, and yet it is hard to imagine tempi both more musically misconceived and at greater odds with the professed slavish adherence to the text that has won him so many critical plaudits. Aside from a number of notational errors and oddities, the new critical edition, edited by Kaplan and Renate Stark-Voit, provides an undeniably overdue revision of the Ratz edition and thorough source citation, but the few of its elementary details Kaplan has internalized as a conductor were gauchely executed in performance, and we were spared a tastelessly heightened Schrei only by virtue of maladroit handling. The less said about this new chamber reduction commissioned for the occasion the better; may it sink without trace.

In a sense Kaplan’s imagined gravitas was not entirely unexpected: his Mahler needs to be so monumentally unbearable because the only conviction at its core, holding the entire performance together despite acutely inadequate conducting, is the self-aggrandizing certainty of his greatness as a Mahler interpreter (like Florence Foster Jenkins, only twice as delusional and half as funny). This may be conductor’s music through and through but such unchecked narcissism would be insufferable in any performance of this symphony. Let us hope the cheque was very large.

Predictably pathetic footnote about Viennese music journalism: Die Presse and Der Standard ran two puff pieces to hype this concert and yet no print critic had the guts to actually review it.

Image credit: Wolfgang Schaufler

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