Mahler: Symphony No 4; Mozart / Tennstedt, Boston

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Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G major

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 35 in D major, K. 385, “Haffner”

Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Klaus Tennstedt, conductor

Recorded at Symphony Hall, Boston, 15 January 1977

Picture format: NTSC 4:3
Sound format: Enhanced Mono
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Menu language: English
Running time: 77 mins
No. of DVDs: 1

R E V I E W:


MAHLER Symphony No. 4. MOZART Symphony No. 35, “Haffner” Klaus Tennstedt, cond; Boston SO; Phyllis Bryn-Julson (sop) ICA 5072 (DVD: 77:56) Live: Boston 1/15/1977

I wonder how many readers recall Klaus Tennstedt’s early years in the U.S. … how exciting they were, how he upset the balance of acknowledged great conductors, the brilliance of his interpretations, his wonderful imagination in phrasing and accents. He was like no one else then performing; even a critic with as narrow tastes as B. H. Haggin came under his spell. A group of well-off concertgoers banded together, called themselves “The Klausketeers,” and followed him around the country, going to his performances in Boston, New York, Cincinnati, and Cleveland.

This DVD returns us to those wonderful days of yesteryear. The Lone Tennstedt rides again!

All kidding aside, it’s so wonderful to see Tennstedt on the podium again. His expressive and somewhat strange movements, often likened to a marionette on acid, were natural extensions of his personality. As with Carlos Kleiber, there was no artifice, no pretense, no “look at me I’m wonderful” in Tennstedt’s makeup. He was so much what Toscanini would have called “an honest musician.” I was privileged to meet and interview him in the early 1980s, and was so much in awe of him that I almost choked up asking him questions. But he was gracious, and warm, and talked less about himself than about his recent discovery that the final dynamic mark on the last note of Schubert’s great C-Major symphony was really a diminuendo and not a con forza . He was that true rarity, a modest genius, and in the end the pressures of international fame were not for him. He began to measure his present performances against his great successes of the past, and eventually this form of competing with himself, in addition to his battle with cancer, ate him up from the inside out.

Tennstedt’s Mahler Fourth is completely typical of his style: Incorporating a great many contrasts, not only of dynamics but also of phrasing, he begins the symphony with a languorous tempo and a rallentando in the upward portamento string passage, then suddenly increases the tempo when the clarinets enter. The rest of the movement is played in much the same unexpected way, with that wonderful undercurrent of intensity that only Tennstedt could bring to bear on Mahler in his time (and which only Francis Xavier Roth brings to it nowadays).

Oddly, the visual quality of this release seems a little out of focus, or at least in soft focus. The sound quality is also unexpectedly roomy, or boomy, compared to the BSO telecasts with Munch and Steinberg, and in this symphony director David Atwood apparently wanted to show off his multiple camera angles. Every time the sleigh bells are heard, one sees the percussionist—who looks like a CPA on loan from H & R Block—prosaically tapping them. There are other split-screen effects showing the violins in the lower left quadrant, the clarinets in the upper right, another with the strings on the left and a solo horn on the right. Sometimes it works; other times (as in repeated shots of the same boring percussionist) it seems perfunctory.

But there is nothing perfunctory about this performance. Like so many Tennstedt concerts of this period it takes wing and flies—levitates at times—and there was no one who could touch him when he was “on,” not in Mahler, not in Beethoven, not even in Mozart. After his Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of Fidelio from the Metropolitan Opera in 1980, I spoke to two of the cast members whose general impression was one of immense respect and awe. “He really knows his stuff,” one of the principal basses told me. For all his self-effacing modesty, Tennstedt in rehearsal could be quite as demanding as Rodzinski or Toscanini—when he desperately wanted a certain effect, he was not above yelling at the players until he got it—but it was always to serve the music, never to serve Klaus Tennstedt.

The soprano soloist here, Phyllis Bryn-Julson, comes out on stage just before the third movement. I’ve seen it done like that before, but it breaks up the mood a bit. Luckily, Tennstedt in those years could pick up his mood from where he left off, so that the long third movement (which he takes more than 20 minutes to play) is simply heavenly in its lyric expressiveness. It’s disconcerting to see the musicians playing as if they were bored while the listening experience reveals so much feeling, nuance, and detail. Only a few of the musicians, usually those in the back rows, appear to be wrapped up in the performance, but the proof is in the playing, and there’s nothing prosaic about it. (In this movement, director Atwood really outdoes himself in silliness, giving us a split-screen image of Tennstedt from two different angles, front-and-center on the left, on an angle facing the orchestra on the right. We also get the winds playing “around” the solo horn, who is filmed separately and set off by a diamond-shaped inset. Give me a break!)

At the conclusion of the third movement, the earlier arrival of the soprano becomes clear, since the fourth movement begins without pause. Bryn-Julson was a favorite singer in Boston in those years; she had a good voice, if not a particularly distinctive one; she doesn’t sound as young or light-voiced as the music demands, but within her limitations she sings it very well with a finer legato than Judith Blegen (on the classic James Levine recording). Tennstedt has the right measure of the music: light and airy in the lyric sections, almost frantic in the wind outbursts. Strangely, the applause is not terribly enthusiastic. Perhaps this particular audience didn’t “get” Mahler, or was disappointed for some strange reason.

As mentioned in the liner notes, Tennstedt’s Mozart is “slightly old-school but never heavy.” Listeners must perhaps be reminded that the innovations of Roger Norrington, Trevor Pinnock, and Jaap ter Linden were all far in the future; even Nikolaus Harnoncourt was conducting Mozart, into the early 1980s, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and with much slower tempos than Tennstedt takes here. This was the vanguard of Mozart performances in his time. Tennstedt eschews the more pronounced rubato that Toscanini used in the first movement during the 1930s; in fact, this performance has some of the same drive and forward momentum as Toscanini’s NBC Symphony performance, only with much finer sound. Here we also have a different TV director, Russ Fortier (why would the BSO use two different directors for the same concert?). Some of the same split-screen effects are used, but not as overdone as in the Mahler. As I rather suspected, the applause for the Mozart is far more enthusiastic than for the Mahler, almost deafening in fact.

If you are a fan of Tennstedt, you cannot be without this DVD. If you want to see and hear what was so wonderful about Tennstedt, this is also the place to start. This man, like a handful of conductors before him, was one in a thousand. We shall not see his like again.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: ICAD 5072

  • UPC: 5060244550728

  • Label: ICA Classics

  • Composer: Gustav Mahler, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

  • Conductor: Klaus Tennstedt

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Boston Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Phyllis Bryn-Julson