O.C. is back in Milan almost two months from an extended summer in NYC -- already here long enough to saturate her tongue in delicate, fishy bagna cauda from Trattoria alle Langhe; syrupy fresh marrons glacés from Giovanni Galli (with candied violet flowers layered on top); and all the wintry grappa she can drink (Bocchino cantina privata from the mid '70s...strong with honey, cinnamon, tabasco, and sometimes bread crusts) -- but the arching shade from this past Fall's Lincoln Center events still touches her shoulders: Bernard Haitink & the London Symphony Orchestra's Mahler concerts. Opera Chic was lucky enough to attend all three concerts at Avery Fisher Hall-- Mahler's 4th, 9th, and Das Lied -- so her last tangible Fourth Symphony still resonates from the old Dutch Master, further encouraged by Sinopoli's Complete Mahler recordings with the Philharmonia Orchestra.
This time in Milan, O.C. wasn't going to pass-up hearing Mahler's Fourth live. Although this time it wasn't the Philharmonia or the LSO, but rather the small corps of practiced musicians of Milan's Orchestra I Pomeriggi Musicali, a tight orchestra on Thursday night -- with only 30-ish strings, a dozen woodwinds, and half a dozen brass/horns -- a big enough challenge to master even one of Mahler's lighter symphonies that thankfully calls for a smaller orchestra. So that's where O.C. found herself, at Milan's Teatro dal Verme. Dal Verme's stood in Milan since 1872, inaugurated with Meyerbeer's The Huguenots. It also hosted the Italian premieres of Puccini's opera/ballet Le Villi, Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, and Lehar's Die lustige Witwe.
Thursday's concert featured Swedish soprano Lisa Larsson, who has already cut a few discs in Mozart and Bach, and Torino-born Italian conductor, Antonello Manacorda. Maestro Manacorda, one of the original founders of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, has been collaborating with IPM since the 2006/07 season when he became the Music Director.
Larsson glided onto the stage with the Midas Touch: gold hair accentuated by a golden ballgown. The first work was Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs (Fruehling, September, Morgan, and Zueignung featured here), which was composed in 1948 when he was 84-years-old, and was never heard live by the composer, who passed away before Furtwaengler gave the premiere two years later in London. Two of the works -- Frueling & September -- are the poems of Hermann Hesse, although all songs deal with an acceptance of death and a sense of calm.
The works are scored for soprano and orchestra, but even the petite Orchestra I Pomeriggi was too large for Larsson. She easily mastered great pronunciation, solid technique (delicious vibrato), a lovely, striking voice, and a maturity that echoed well beyond her years, but she was unable to rise above the instruments (until Morgan's quieter duet with the first violinist), which makes us think that Lieder is not the best vehicle for her voice, which seemed pushed-back at times. Anchoring the first work, Manacorda's Strauss was expressive and colorful with gorgeous woodwinds. Swelling notes from a thoughtful conductor eased the orchestra into good paces.
Completed during the summer of 1900, Mahler's Fourth Symphony contains the landscapes of certain texts taken from a collection of poetry written a century earlier, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The poem in the fourth movement, Das himmlische Leben, is a child's version of paradise (The Lovely Bones?). OC loves this symphony because it's mostly distilled and understated, swallowing its own strenghts into subordination -- kind of how vintage diamonds were cut differently back in the day, almost dome-like, to emphasize the elegance of the shape, as opposed to modern day diamonds that have been chopped for bling-factor and carat-size.
We expected good shaping from the orchestra based on Strauss's Four Last Songs, and although we weren't disappointed, we weren't completely satiated. Manacorda optimistically began the first movement, full of that jolly, pastoral lightness bolstered by an undercurrent of sadness. A lovely pace allowed the snap of Mahler's little jokes and Manacorda didn't seem to be afraid to push his orchestra. A good amount of introspection made the movement wispy and thoughtful, but during Mahler's little earthquakes, it seemed that Manacorda lacked some of that harrowing depth and instead focused on big-sound dynamics.
Throughout the next two movements, Manacorda showed some great color and idiosyncrasies, especially via the well-shaped strings. But we didn't feel that Mahlerian drive or sustainability which is needed to defeat the neurotic, Austrian composer. We were worried that it was just the sheer momentum of the orchestra's tempi that pushed the movements from start to finish, as opposed to maintaining their own pulses. Bothersome, but it never fell apart. The third movement, which should show-off the conductor's zen-like precision of sustainability, serenity, and reflection, was instead shapeless.
Things nicely improved for the Fourth movement, including Larsson, who also stepped it up: she was confident, secure, and expressed a weighty maturity with the vocal lines. Mahler's Fourth symphony is a sneakily, deceptively-difficult work, as demonstrated perfectly on Thursday night at Teatro dal Verme. But, at the end of the night, OC left the theater with the spring of Mahler's pastoral melodies stuck in her head, and really, that's all she could have asked for.