Rare Mahler and disappointing Perlman make for mixed rewards at Ravinia

Fri Aug 05, 2011 at 1:02 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Gustav Mahler, age 25.

One of James Conlon’s first initiatives when he became Ravinia music director in 2005 was to begin a multi-season traversal of the Mahler symphonies and Das Lied von der Erde that would culminate during the composer’s 2010 150th birthday anniversary.

As a coda of sorts to commemorate this year’s Mahler death centennial, Conlon has rescued an early Mahler work that has never found the same level of acceptance — Das klagende Lied — for a rare performance Thursday night at the North Shore festival.

How rarely heard is Das klagende Lied? Even the CSO, which Conlon described in pre-concert remarks as “the world’s greatest Mahler orchestra” has only done it once before — in 1990 at Ravinia, with Conlon conducting.

This is teenaged Mahler still drunk with Wagner, and is principally fascinating as a precursor of what was to come. Yet there is no denying that when the work is performed with an orchestra such as the CSO — and blessedly, given their cost-saving absence at last Saturday’s Tosca performances, the Chicago Symphony Chorus – along with quality vocal soloists under a conductor like Conlon who really believes in this work, there is value to be gleaned from the experience.

Vocal soloists and choruses abound in Mahler symphonies, yet Das klagende Lied is the closest Mahler came to writing an opera, containing as it does a long and chatty fairy-tale libretto. Mahler himself apparently recognized this and scaled back the work from three movements to two, but since the discovery of the opening movement in the late 1960s, it is more often than not restored, as it was here.

That means that a full performance runs a good hour, at least, as this one did, a length that unlike later Mahler works feels overextended early on. The vocal quartet made up of soprano Keri Alkema, Russian mezzo soprano Ekaterina Semenchuck, tenor Rodrick Dixon and Irish baritone Brian Mulligan was uneven with the women holding their own while the men were sometimes overpowered by the orchestra and chorus. The high point was Semenchuck’s taking on the accusatorily chilling voice of the murdered brother in Der Spielmann with the CSO chorus offering pathos-imbued lamentations that were urgently poignant.

Itzhak Perlman

The main draw of the sold-out evening was violinist Itzhak Perlman, who was celebrating the 45th anniversary of his Ravinia debut to the very day. Performing a full concerto on that occasion, Perlman celebrated Thursday by providing a rare late-career traversal of the Beethoven Violin Concerto rather than the smaller-scale showcase pieces that have dominated recent appearances.

It would be wonderful to report that there was a flicker of the Perlman of old, but alas, Perlman’s wayward intonation was so constant and extreme that it became the dominant issue of the performance. In the past, Perlman has been able to compensate for deteriorating pitch problems with a wide dynamic palette, solid technique, musicality and showmanship, but these were sadly found to be in short supply Thursday evening.

Posted in Performances

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