The last word Gustav Mahler uttered on his deathbed — according to his wife, Alma — was “Mozart.” Perhaps the composer was already hearing sounds from the next world, or simply reliving some of his happiest memories from this one.
The deep connection Mahler felt to Mozart’s music is never more apparent than in the Symphony No. 4, where Mahler offers a melodic directness and transparency of texture that produce a Mozartean grace. That quality was all the more apparent in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s program over the weekend, which paired Mahler’s Fourth with several Mozart items to satisfying effect.
Music director Marin Alsop led a lithe and winsome account of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” at the start of Sunday’s concert before a not-so-large audience at the Meyerhoff. Funny how such a popular work, one that many a non-classical music fan could hum a few bars of, doesn't actually get played by major orchestras very often. What a perfect little creation this is, a synthesis of 18th-century symmetry and sensibility, sparked by contagious good humor.
The inclusion of three concert arias for soprano on the program provided a strong link to the Mahler symphony, which, of course, famously ends with a soprano solo. The arias also gave the audience an extra opportunity to savor the talents of
Susanna Phillips, an Alabama-born singer with some impressive prizes and performance credits to her name.
She's the real deal, a soprano who can produce a consistently appealing tone that, even with some thinning in the lower register, never loses its silken finish, and who can get to the heart of a phrase. A case in point was the eloquent way that Phillips sculpted the lines of "Vado, ma dove?" Alsop drew refined support for the soprano from the orchestra in each of the arias.
I was terribly disappointed in the conductor's approach to the first movement of the Mahler symphony, which calls for much more in the way of rhythmic pliability and a deeper feeling of nostalgia. Alsop was in metronomic mode, focusing on neatness and structure while passing through some of Mahler's most exquisite writing without leaving any discernible trace of personal feeling.
But things improved markedly after that, starting with some delectable, poetic shaping of the trio sections in the scherzo. The third movement was sensitively paced so that the music always had an underlying motion, but was given a good deal of breathing space as well. Alsop's attention to subtle shifts in tempo and dynamics here yielded a truly Maherlian experience, rich in character and depth. The orchestra sounded marvelous, recalling similar tonal and technical heights in last season's account of Mahler's Ninth with Aslop.
The admirable music-making continued in the finale, which had the additional benefit of sweetly endearing vocalism from Phillips. She conveyed the folk poem about a child's description of heavenly delights with abundant charm and, in the last, gentle moments, an appropriately rapt beauty.
PHOTO OF MARIN ALSOP (BY DAVE HOFFMANN) COURTESY OF BSO; PHOTO OF SUSANNA PHILLIPS COURTESY OF IMG ARTISTS