Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, that grinning, gibbering fast ride across the
hellish environs, that most sacred of all symphonic monsters, ricocheted
dizzyingly through the Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center on Thursday night.
Everyone knew that Yuri Temirkanov, the Leningrad dragonslayer, would carry the
Los Angeles Philharmonic into outer space with his performance of this work in
this, the final event in his two-week guest stint. Everyone was right.
If there is such a thing as larger than larger than life, this work of Mahler’s
relatively tender years — be began it at 27 — is surely it. Even among the
wild jumble of his later works, nothing quite equals the Second for the
arrogance of its vision, the incredible variety of moods and devices that lie
across his path. Some conductors would minimize the breadth of contrasts and
impart to the work some sense of symphonic consistency. Not for Temirkanov,
however, this easy path.
It was, if anything, a performance full of illusion. It seemed, as it unfolded,
quite remarkably broad: a measured pace for the opening funeral march, a slow
dance through the andante with the opening upbeats oddly protracted, a finale
that swept toward the stage, inexorably but tantalizingly, from what seemed
like vast distances (but were only a few feet backstage, where the extra brass
and percussion were stationed). If Temirkanov’s tempo contrasts seemed extreme,
so did the dynamics, with the soft percussion strokes that began the finale
particularly memorable, and the quiet, other-worldly start of the final chorus
an effect bordering on the incredible.
Yet there was illusion here; a performance so broad, so full of sweeping,
mysterious oratory, seemed to go on for hours and yet ended up at the same
timing (82 minutes or thereabouts) as the swift-sounding, matter-of-fact
recordings by Georg Solti among others. Music plays tricks, and this strange
bulk of a symphony sounded, under Temirkanov’s fluent, intensely personal and
inventive direction, positively feather-light.
Mezzo-soprano Christine Cairns, remembered for her splendid solo in the Andre
Previn restoration of Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” film score, seemed
somewhat out of her range in her first solo in the Mahler, but recovered nicely
for her brief invocation near the end. Soprano Susan Patterson’s brief last-
movement solo was properly angelic. And John Currie’s Master Chorale,
motionless on the stage for the first 70 minutes like silent watchers at the
brink of an inferno, blazed into its own brilliant life at the end. Wow.

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