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Great Mahlers

Leonid Grin's transcendent double-bill

By Philip Collins

That composer Gustav Mahler would choose to adapt Franz Schubert's String Quartet in D Minor, Death and the Maiden, for string orchestra is not at all puzzling. One needn't look far through Mahler's oeuvre to see that death plays a prominent role in a great many of the composer's works. But there is more to it. The operatic breadth of Schubert's Quartet makes it a sure candidate for enlargement, its constant bouts of emotional conflict and contrast call out for orchestral apparel.

Mahler's transcription of Death and the Maiden, together with his Symphony No. 1, The Titan, made up a full evening's listening at San Jose Symphony's concert last weekend. Music director Leonid Grin's program created an appealing trajectory that ascended from the dark pathos of D minor in Death and the Maiden to The Titan's clarion triumphs in D major.

Death and the Maiden made a stunning first impression on this writer. Though familiar with the quartet version, the string orchestra adaptation brought new dimensions to the work. The textural thickening provided by a full string compliment opened up the dynamic range remarkably.

Mahler's orchestration made utmost variety of his means. Inclusion of abundant solo work and consort groupings effectively contrasted the lush full-ensemble sections, heightening the music's play of opposites more clearly than a string quartet could ever hope to achieve. The sparing use of six basses--for punctuations and harmonic depth--further accentuated the score's dramatic points.

The unique intimacy evoked by four players was of course sacrificed. But gone also were the numerous instances of overplaying and harmonic undernourishment. For once, the work's sonorities could be indulged unreservedly; gone were the strenuous finger stretchings and excessive vibrato that quartets too often muster in efforts to sound "big" enough.

Grin elicited crisp, inspired playing from the ensemble. Layerings of foreground and background activities were explicitly drawn through focused complicity among the sections and effective balancing by Grin. The opening movement featured some of the evening's finest moments, for it is a soaring musical flight, and this performance took wing. The violins moved the music forward like river rapids, lyrically and emotionally driven. The drama was all-encompassing.

The lovely andante con moto began promisingly, and its overall tenor remained sublime. Grin set a transcendent atmosphere--fluid yet strongly rhythmical. Considering the first violins' recurrent intonation skirmishes, it was particularly impressive that the music came across as well as it did. Their melodies were plagued with a kind of acne: spotty outbreaks of microtonal pitch discrepancies that soured the latter movements' sweetest harmonies.

As noted on previous occasions, the cellos seemed acoustically handicapped. Their traditional position, to the conductor's immediate right, is perhaps worth re-evaluating in light of the stage area's pronounced width at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. Too often, the cellos' contributions seemed muted, lost in the wings or somewhere other than where I was sitting.

About five years prior to his setting of Death and the Maiden, Mahler composed his first symphony. It is an astounding testament of orchestral technology and imagination. The work's form--sprawling yet coherent, and at times even revelatory--heralds the even grander efforts in Mahler's subsequent symphonies.

After a shaky attempt at the work's fragile opening section, the performance began to jell. Artfully turned phrases by principal woodwind and brass players (including very fine offstage trumpet work) radiated the music's springtime flavor. The cellos' featured melody was rendered elegantly and with warmth as well as feistiness.

Mahler's calculated layerings of as many as four separate musical threads at once were well honored. No matter how thick traffic got, Grin elicited textures that were well delineated and sumptuous. The funeral dirge in the third movement (based on "Frére Jacques") was especially sonorous, starting off with principal bassist Robert Manning's beautifully stated introduction.

The fourth movement is perhaps somewhat longwinded, but wonderful discoveries abound throughout. Mahler's passion for pantheism is particularly evident in the fourth movement, wherein the composer imparts a kind of global wrap-up that would become characteristic in his later works. At much expense to proportion, Mahler was bent upon incorporating every strand of musical thought presented during the preceding movements into a final denouement of ideo-musicological import.

Grin treated the movement's interplays of motion and repose with utmost theatricality. From the magnificent wallop of the opening chord, through to the final measures of orgiastic fulfillment, the orchestra delivered handsomely.

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From the Dec. 7-14, 1995 issue of Metro

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