Good things? They come in threes a lot -- The Oresteia, triple plays in baseball, three pairs of Dries Van Noten stilettos for the price of two during sale season in Antwerp, orgasms ("How do you call three orgasms?". "A good beginning" -- from the Elizabeth I - William Shakespeare correspondence: naughty, naughty Judi Dench).
Great trilogies? Godfather (Sofia and Mascagni @ Teatro Massimo and intergalactic cannoli make N. 3 worth your while), Indiana Jones, Mozart/DaPonte, the original Star Wars, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy, Alexander Tcherepnin's three operas, and yeah, we'll throw in Il Trittico, nominally. And so Opera Chic peered into the ranks of great trilogies with Lincoln Center's Bernard Haitink and the London Symphony Orchestra triptych, all of which OC attended this past week as part of their Symphonic Masters series. (Part I review here and Part II review here.)
Sunday afternoon's idyllic sunshine lured the uninitiated into Avery Fisher Hall, unaware that Haitink would gift us with one of the most brilliant and resonant performances of Mahler's Ninth Symphony ever, since the day poor tired transfigurated Gustav first put pencil to paper up there in Toblach where the grass is green and the cows are mean ("In the mountains, there you feel free. I read, much of the night,..."). Cue Star Wars opening crawl: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." An old Jedi master and his light saber baton etched out a symphony worthy of restoring freedom to the galaxy. Now OC loves her Giulini Ninth almost as much as her Sinopoli (or as much as her Barbirolli, and Claudione Abbado will always take your hand, warming it up, gently), but Haitink's superseded anything Opera Chic has ever heard.
So it began two years before Mahler's own death, his final works in the gorgeous and equally unforgiving Dolomites -- where OC has vacationed many seasons herself among the placid cows chomping on chamomile flowers, the desolate and crumbling barns, the pristine waterfalls and deep-blue lakes, and the unbelievably fresh dairy where one can taste said cow-digested-chamomile -- written by that cranky, born-old, clumsy, introspective man who was such a schlump that he was sometimes mistaken for Alma's dad. Pounded-out by Mahler in four summer months of 1909 in a shack in those Dolomite mountains, manuscripts toiled over among such clarifying, fresh air and frigid nights, so crystalline and clean -- also churning out Das Lied von der Erde and the fragment of his Tenth those last three summers of his life. Opera Chic visited Toblach three times, to try to unlock the secret, to try and understand what happened up there, that turned a composer of great, uneven, nakedly sentimental talent into a genius of Beethoven-like stature with the Ninth and Das Lied Von Der Erde -- did he glimpse another world already, knowing he was about to take leave of this one? What turned the brash, if interesting, vulgarian who wrote the Titan into the pure spirit who penned the Ninth, soaring above our world? And yes Opera Chic really likes the Eighth, the obsessive, touching, creepily stalkerish, hypnotic work Lloyd Dobler would have written had he been a composer (Alma -- and the world -- his Ione Skye), but still. The Ninth, Das Lied, what's left of the Tenth. Compare them with the rest of his output and it's the difference between Derek Jeter and Melky Cabrera (and we like Melky).
The first public performance, as we know, came posthumously after Mahler's death from young assistant Bruno Walter (funny how your assistant, however talented, can get you less than, say Krazy Otto Klemperer or Big Willy Mengelberg), good ole Bruno (no umlaut) who also handled the world premiere of Das Lied von der Erde after Mahler's death in 1911 (a year later, the 9th). And how much do we love this quote from Almschi's biography of her great Gustl? So much we're going to share it again (since it's paraphrased and reworded in every single Mahler's 9th program notes in the world):
Haitink himself glimpsed something exceedingly Mahler-like in his preparations, balancing the precision of Mahler's score with Zen concentration and clarity, and a deeply lyric and musical dialog that pervaded the entire score.
Andante started as a mellow, penitent, pensive meditation. Haitink's undying love of Mahler's Ninth was transparent as he caressed and shaped touching and stirring passages. Faint motifs were given as much space and air as they needed from the patient maestro, and as the melody built towards the thundering cymbals, the sound churned and stunned. A perfectly controlled chaos of sound. Imploring, vengeful, with moments of great meditation and reflection.
Im Tempo featured witty and joyous woodwinds, and tightly-woven themes. Haitink took his time to add weight and depth, but without the static, turgid rhythms that sometime drag down slower tempi. He perfected a delicate, light touch in the midst of such loneliness, solitude and pain.
Rondo Burleske featured a rousing snap of brass, big trombones amidst a gorgeous, sweeping crispness. Haitink was able to take such big Mahlerian themes of neediness and unrequited love and turn them into heaven-bound trifles, unmarked with the clingy demands or manipulation that, at times, insist upon the listener.
It's the Adagio, and sadness is laid bare. The richness of the strings gave way to insightful swelling and ebbing, a huge wall of sound turned into a force, and enchantment that took the listener on a journey. Deep and tender, completely controlled, and undeniably transcendent. Death has marked the score, but music is alive. In the Adagio, the greatest maestri explain their vision of -- well, everything, through Mahler's notes. Carlo Maria Giulini warmed your heart in those final moments, explaining calmly to you his faith in a better world beyond our own; Sergiu Celibidache, that mean Zen master, dared us to look deeply into Nothingness instead. Bernard Haitink, calm and unsmiling and frail and serene, illuminated for us, in that big room, simply, the Sublime.
And for this we can only be eternally grateful to the Dutch Master and the Englishmen in New York.