Review: ISO performs Mahler 4 

Soprano Malin Christensson joins guest conductor Alexander Shelley

click to enlarge Guest conductor Alexander Shelley
  • Guest conductor Alexander Shelley
For Halloween Eve, the ISO's fourth classical program seems perhaps a bit unfit. Guest conductor Alexander Shelley dominated his program with Mahler's hour-long Symphony No. 4 in G (1902). It copies almost verbatim a song from the composer's Das Knaben Wunderhorn (1892) cycle and pastes it as the symphony's fourth and final movement. The song's title, "Das himmlische Leben" (The Heavenly Life), given its verses, dealt in Mahler's mind with a child's view of heaven.

Guest soprano Malin Christensson projected just enough shrillness in her voice to possibly suggest that Mahler--9 years before his death -- didn't himself quite believe in the blissful, heavenly existence characterized in the verses. And frankly neither does the mood the composer projects in his orchestra throughout this intense, culminating movement. As the harp plunks its way into silence in the remote key of E major at the symphony's final cadence, there is an ineffable sadness, a yearning that is far more telling to me than the overwrought, almost maudlin way Mahler's later works -- the Sixth and Ninth symphonies, the song cycle Das Lied von der Erde -- deal with his death obsession.

In fact the whole symphony appears to get darker as the four movements progress.Opening with a rustic theme using sleigh bells, the movement works to a climactic, more serious development. The third movement has one of the few double theme and variations structures that I'm aware of: 1st theme--2nd theme--1st theme variation--2nd theme variation--1st theme 2nd variation--climax--coda. (Two other famous movements with close to this format are the Adagio from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the "Heiliger Dankgesang" from his Op. 132 string quartet. Can anyone name others?). Each succeeding variation becomes more intense till they reach the climax, the loudest orchestral tutti in the whole work; this ushers a theme used more prominently in the final movement.

click to enlarge Soprano Malin Christensson
  • Soprano Malin Christensson

Shelley's baton work showed excellence throughout the four movements: well controlled dynamic nuances, good attack precision, and such good solo work that we did not miss the absence in Mahler 4 of three trombones and a tuba, an omission most unusual in 1900-era symphonies.Regrettably, Christensson failed to make herself heard above the orchestral din except for here and there.And when we did hear her, she gave us a close-to-a-shriek delivery. This inaudibility was as heard from the rear portion of the first mezzanine; perhaps she was better heard closer to the stage, on either floor.

Prior to intermission we heard two short works lasting a total of 25 minutes: first Béla Bartók's Rumanian Folk Dances (1917), followed by Seven Early Songs of Alban Berg, the latter again featuring Christensson. Though I find myself liking almost everything Berg has written--even what he does with the 12-tone music inspired by his teacher Arnold Schoenberg--I could only savor what the orchestra played as I could not hear most of Christensson's verses. Those I did hear were once again shriek-laden.Perhaps part of the issue resides with Shelley's voicing the orchestra such as to override her vocalizing; otherwise it's a matter of her own projection.Oct. 31; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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