Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony tended to some unfinished business Thursday night -- the never-completed Tenth Symphonies by Beethoven and Mahler.
For good measure, there was also some new business, in the form of rarely heard songs by Mahler's wife and, just as rare, a Beethoven overture touched up by Mahler.
It added up to one of the BSO's most interesting programs of the season, yet it was performed only once at Meyerhoff Hall. Odd. All that effort for so little return. (Music by both Mahlers will turn up in this weekend's Off the Cuff program that includes a reenactment of Mahler's therapy session with Freud.)
Although I loved the novelty of Thursday's concert, I kept thinking of a more rewarding lineup. Instead of just the first movement of Mahler's Tenth, the movement he essentially finished, I wish we could have heard a version of the whole symphony as completed by Deryck Cooke (or one of the other musicologists who have taken the challenge), based on Mahler's substantial sketches.
Having a full Mahler Tenth as the main item on the bill would still have allowed room for Barry Cooper's conjectural attempt at fashioning the first movement of what might have been Beethoven's Tenth. Or, better yet, the companion piece could have been Luciano Berio's "Rendering," a fascinating work from 1989 that takes as its starting point sketches Schubert left behind for a Tenth Symphony. Ah, well, maybe next time.
Alsop got things started Thursday with
Mahler's version of Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3 -- which is to say, basically Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3. The differences between Mahler's arrangement and the original don't call attention to themselves as much as his retouching of the orchestration in some Beethoven symphonies.
Mahler sure knew something about intensifying drama, though, and it was possible to hear in the BSO's performance a bolder level of contrasts than usual, as Alsop effectively molded and propelled the score.
Mahler's influence was also felt in the repositioning of the players onstage. It was great to see and hear the orchestra in the seating plan that he used (and several conductors still choose today) -- first and second violins sitting opposite each other (the original stereophonic effect); cellos inside, next to the firsts; violas inside, next to the seconds; basses on the left.
Alma Mahler may well have developed into a major composer had she not accepted her husband's ban on such activity as a condition of their marriage (only after his time with Freud did Mahler realize the error of that requirement). Still, Alma's songs reveal a fine, if not thoroughly distinctive, sense of melody, harmony and atmosphere.
In the seven lieder included on the BSO program, the influence of Richard Strauss was evident throughout. This was especially true in those pieces, such as "Die Stille Stadt" and "Laue Sommernacht," with long instrumental codas. The Straussian connection sounded all the richer thanks to the orchestrations of the songs, deftly done by David and Colin Matthews.
Susanne Mentzer's warm, evenly produced mezzo tones filled out the melodic lines elegantly, achieving particularly beautiful results in "Waldseligkeit" and the disarmingly conversational "Bei dir ist es traut," with its sense of internalized rapture at the close.
Alsop provided attentive partnering from the podium and coaxed some lovely playing from her colleagues; the orchestra's final diminished chord in "Waldseligkeit" was, in itself, a gorgeous highlight of the evening.
No need to spend too much time with Cooper's attempt at filling in the blanks of Beethoven's Tenth. The music sounds like imitation Beethoven at best, imitation Schubert at worst. It has curiosity value, of course, and Alsop sure gave it a good shot.
The BSO's discipline slipped here and there in that would-be-Beethoven, but things came together quite effectively in the Adagio from Mahler's Tenth. Alsop showed great sensitivity to the searing lyrical theme that emerges from the opening mist, and she allowed the music to unfold with considerable eloquence.
But her approach to the pileup of dissonance near the end was disappointing. She didn't give quite enough time to, or summon enough orchestral power for, this extraordinary moment, when it seems as if Mahler peers into the future of the 20th century, shudders and retreats.
MAHLER PORTRAIT (by David Goldberg) COURTESY OF BSO; SUSANNE MENTZER PHOTO (by Marty Umans) COURTESY OF IMG ARTISTS