A Musical Homecoming
Myung-Whun Chung returns to Rome
to conduct Beethoven and Mahler,
heard by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
For Korean conductor Myung-Whun Chung, a concert with the Orchestra of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia is a homecoming. He was the orchestra's musical director from 1997 to 2005 and very much loved by audiences. He also left a major imprint in Florence and Venice. In early May, he was awarded the Premio Abbiati by the Italian National Association of Music Critics for his masterly conducting of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra at the inauguration of La Fenice opera house's 2014-2015 season ('Back in the Lagoon', 11 December 2014).
Thus, the huge Santa Cecilia concert hall was sold out and filled in each category of seats on 9 May 2015 when he was back for a concert of Beethoven and Mahler. The concert was repeated on 11 and 12 May. I attended the 9 May performance.
The concert included two rather different symphonies: Beethoven's Symphony No 2 in D, Op 36, and Mahler's Symphony No 4 in G, for orchestra and soprano solo. They have in common the fact they each belong to the composer's initial set of symphonic works. During his thirteen year tenure in Rome, Chung conducted Beethoven's Symphony No 2 twice. He was also the orchestra's first director to conduct all Mahler's symphonic works. Thus, older people in the audience could compare the differences in style, if any, as years passed by. Of course, they were comparisons filtered through memory. I do not recall whether I heard Chung conducting Beethoven's Symphony No 2, but I have a distinct recollection of his conducting Mahler's Symphony No 4 in 1999 and, thanks to my personal computer, I also found the review I wrote at the time for an Italian daily newspaper.
Beethoven's Symphony No 2, first performed on 5 April 1803, is clearly set in the eighteenth century pre-romantic period, even though at that time, some contemporary critics wrote that it sounded 'too modernist' (ie that there were too many concessions to the then incoming Romantic style). Chung emphasized the elegant lace of the second movement (Larghetto) almost to juxtapose it with the pure rhythm of the Scherzo (third movement) and with the concise fourth movement (Allegro molto). Chung also provided depth and breadth to the symphony by slightly slowing its tempos: it lasted some forty five minutes instead of the more customary thirty five minutes of most live and recorded performances. The audience was enthralled.
The evening's main piece was Mahler's Symphony No 4, however. As is well-known, this symphony has the title Das himmelische Leben ('The Celestial Life'); this is, in fact, the title of the lied sung by the soprano in the fourth and last movement. Mahler had planned to include this song in Symphony No 3, but this previous symphony grew too long (one-hundred-and-five minutes). Although Mahler had converted to the Roman Catholic Church in 1897 with great ostentation — only a means to become the General Director of the Vienna State Opera House — there is nothing religious in the 'celestial life' mentioned in the song; it is merely a bucolic vision of the peaceful Bavarian countryside.
The symphony is very introspective, especially when compared with Symphony No 3, based on the awakening of nature and landscape at the beginning of Summer. Within this context, Sophie Karthäuser, a well-known lieder specialist, was just perfect, with a voice like a nightingale. However, I was in row 11 seat 19 and do not know whether, in the back rows of the upper tier of the enormous Santa Cecilia auditorium, the audience could appreciate her delicate singing. Compared with the 1999 performance, Chung accentuated and delved into Mahler's introspection. Nearly ten minutes of standing ovation followed the performance.