MRDe-music review: Rachmaninoff and Mahler
A presentation of The Toronto Symphony Orchestra
with Boris Berezovsky's replacement Stuart Goodyear

Friday, November 18, 2005 8 pm
Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto


The evening was supposed to begin with Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 4, played by Boris Berezovsky. But he called in sick, and instead we got Stuart Goodyear (age: 26) playing the Rachmann's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini instead.

Not that I'm complaining (I lie. I complained ... I'd have prefered a longer first half, but ... oh well, them's the breaks when you put faith in HUMANS). I've always liked the Rhapsody (which is actually structured as a series of variations), from the slow buildup of density in the opening variations, through the meditative 18th Variation (which is a little over-popular, is often played apart from the Rhapsody itself, and loses impact when not heard in context), to the incresingly fiery final few variations. Rachmaninoff is often considered an overly-emotional composer (to speak in the vernacular, he's often dismissed as a bit schmaltzy if not downright cheesy). I've never found him that way. I recall a professor of mine who wanted to teach a course on under-appreciated middle-of-the-road composers, with Rachmaninoff high on the list. If that course were taught, I'd suggest the Rhapsody as a good piece to study, just because the 18th Variation has so eclipsed the work as a polished piece in so many people's minds. That variation really works better in context, people, and the context is well thought out and executed. It's also fun seeing how Rachmaninoff managed to weave the old Dies Irae plainchant melody into the work; spotting references to this tune in Rachmaninoff pieces should be made into a drinking game.

I don't like 26 year olds who play as well as Goodyear. I feel downright inadequate hearing them.

There was a real lesson in what REAL schmaltz is, what REAL downright cheesiness is, in the encore following the Rhapsody. This was provided in the form arrangement of the Blue Danube Waltz (composer Johann Strauss, arranged by who cares?) for solo piano. Goodyear got to show off his chops, but this really is just a show-off piece which wears out it's welcome fast; once you know what is, you know what's going to happen and if you're not captivated by the somewhat pointless virtuosity, you'll get bored. I'd tell you all about this cheddar and mozarella with a side of bree education, but it's not nice.

(editor note to website editor... ensure that the last sentence of the previous paragraph is moved to become the second sentence, and omit the part starting with "This was provided ... " and ending with "you'll get bored." ... the editor)

I'll admit to two things right now:
1) I'm a Mahler fan.
2) Mahler's Symphony No. 5 has always perplexed me to an extent.

Excuse me for the following .... I'm moving from an attempt at objective detached technical description to (faugh ... uck ... making myself ill here) subjective woolly-fuzzy emotional talk.

The perplexation I get from this symphony mainly stems from my response to how I preceive the emotional content of this work: at times, things happen I don't get why (I'm thinking particularly of the outburst of a chorale-like section in the second movement, which seems innappropriately sudden given the darker mood of the rest of the movement; it makes sense technically as a flash-forward to the fifth movement, but ... ). The last movement also leaves me wondering .... it seems it's meant to be good natured, and even triumphal in places, but it doesn't quite feel right to me. Another commentator, Henri-Louis de la Grange (author of a nearly painfully detailled biography of Mahler, which will run to about 3600 pages in 4 volumes when the english translation is complete) comments on this as well, by alluding to yet another commentator (Theodore Adorno, big wig Marxist philosopher who wrote frequently on music) who found something "forced and unspontaneous" in this movement. I hate it when other people think the same thing I do, especially when they got to the thought before me. I believe they stole from me, based on the fact that I'll be involved in some temporal anomaly sometime in the next 15 to 20 years. You read Adorno's and de la Grange's comments here first. They stole them. Really. I'm not insane. Stop looking at me that way.

Sorry ... off topic there. Not sure if this is really a totally NICE review either. I think the reverse ripples in the timestream from that yet-to-happen temporal anomaly rendered me un-nice or something.

Back on topic ... I said MAINLY from the emotional side ... I've also wondered a fair bit about the five-movement structure of the work, especially given the very close relationship of the first two movements in form and content (think of movement 2 as a speeded up, frantic twin to the first movement); Mahler did in fact group them as "part 1" of the symphony, and it does appear (based on his correspondance with his publisher) that Mahler considered the first movement a "long introduction" to the second movement, which he considered the actual first movement. Well, the average timing of the first two movements is about 27 minutes, with 12 of those on the average going to the introduction. This all seems a bit perverse to me ... but then again perversity has merits too. The first movement is, in my estimation, amazing ... rich, detailled and possessing an emotional arch of great power, and not really in need of it's more frenetic twin.

I'll reserve comment on the huge popularity granted to the Adagietto, sweet but still the smallest and lightest among Mahler's many amazing slow movements. It's well known, often played apart from the symphony itself, and loses impact when not heard in context.

Whoa ... deja-vu.

All this said, I really don't want to presume to fault the work. It's a big shift from the Mahler of the first three symphonies to the Mahler following the 4th symphony. Particularly in the fifth, Mahler really works out cross-movement thematic relationships (I'm a huge fan of No. 6, where I think he did the most remarkable job of creating a massive and varied work that still is held together by references to a fairly small amount of melodic material), and really kicks his amazingly contrapuntal style into top gear. Hearing Mahler live also brings forward his instrumentational abilities; given that Mahler spent a lot of time conducting a massive amount of music as an opera and symphonic conductor, he developed a deep knowledge of what works well for an orchestra. And what a workout he gave the brass section ... I always end up tipping my hat to the TSO brass; they seem to rise to the occasion and manage to fill up the evil cavern of Roy Thompson Hall with a really rich and meaty sound. Thanks TSO brass.

Thanks also to the friend who provided with the tickets for tonight, and to the other friend who provided amiable companionship for the evening (you both know who you are ... everyone else out there can just wonder about identities).

I'm bored writing about music now ... I either want to write, watch society-parodying animated television, or play with toy trains now. And the stupid phone is ringing, probably some [censored] tele-[censored] marketer tying up my phone line and hoping to [censored] waste some of my precious [censored] time and part me from my [censored] ill-gotten, I mean hard-earned ... filthy [censored] [censored] [censored] lucre.