Saturday, February 2, 2008

In its emotionally draining all-Mahler concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Thursday night, the National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Leonard Slatkin, captured the gloominess of the composer at his most introspective.

Placed first on the program, Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs on the Death of Children”) employs a relatively large orchestra yet treats it like a chamber instrument providing splashes of somber background colors for the soloist, who can be either a mezzo-soprano or a baritone.

The five songs in this cycle, based on poems by Friedrich Ruckert, are sung in these performances by renowned baritone Thomas Hampson. The choice of a male voice further darkens the mood of these selections. Yet Mr. Hampson approached this music with delicacy and compassion, adding remarkable poignancy to Mahler’s settings, all of which treat children tragically taken from this life ahead of their time.

Thursday evening, Mr. Hampson and the orchestra were at their best in the final song, which likens the death of children to achieving permanent sanctuary from the fearful tempests of life. As if sensing the immanence of Paradise, the masculine vigor of Mr. Hampson’s initial vocal attack gradually subsided, delicately fading into a twilight mood, drawing the cycle to a calm and peaceful close.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 (sometimes subtitled “Tragic”) is purely instrumental and is cast in the traditional four-movement format, although the composer fiddled with the placement of the middle movements before ordering the scherzo third. Today, this is the generally accepted order, and it’s followed in these performances.

Death haunts the Sixth Symphony as it does the “Kindertotenlieder.” Yet frequently, the symphony blooms into gloriously lyrical luminance, as if remembering sunnier times. The composer’s score teems with inventiveness, including the scoring of not two, but four harps and an array of nonstandard percussion instruments, including a birch rod, on- and off-stage cowbells and a massive “death hammer” that is struck three times in the finale.

Maestro Slatkin puts a great deal of energy into exploring the composer’s emotional complexity. In this symphony, Mahler has begun to grapple with the limitations of Romantic tonality, stretching and extending it in new directions, weaving a dense, frequently dissonant instru- mental fabric that shimmers and fades amid restless, ever-changing tempos.

Sounding slightly underrehearsed, neither the NSO nor Mr. Slatkin seemed to have this quite under control in the first movement Thursday evening. On the other hand, the ensemble got the wildly and intentionally awkward scherzo exactly right in a dazzling display of discipline and virtuosity.

The finale was similarly effective, with Mr. Slatkin indulging in a bit of theatricality by placing the orchestra’s apparently hand-built “death hammer” contraption front and center. Hokey for some, dramatic for others. Yet somehow, this made for an emphatic concluding statement Thursday evening when, after the hammer’s final mighty blow, the symphony’s spirit suddenly breathed its last in the work’s abruptly resigned final bars.


WHAT: National Symphony Orchestra’s all-Mahler concert

WHEN: Tonight at 8

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall

TICKETS: $20 to 80

PHONE: 800/444-1324 or 202/467-4600


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