After a while, a critic begins to develop a second sense about how a performance is going to be. A study of the program - who is performing what work , with what group, where - often gives a fairly good notion of what to expect.
In a city such as New York, where so much is going on, one has to rely on this second sense to determine what to cover on any given night. This is not to imply that this second sense is always going to be accurate. If it were, I could sit at home with my second-guesses and preconceptions and write reviews without ever darkening the doorway of a concert hall.
Even on paper, the recent performances of Mahler's Second Symphony with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic looked promising. He is conductor emeritus of the orchestra he headed for 10 years. The players appear to be unusually fond of Mr. Bernstein, and they respond to him the way they respond to few conductors these days.
The soloists for the Mahler were Jessye Norman and Barbara Hendricks. Miss Norman is already a legend, and Miss Hendricks is showing herself to be one of the outstanding lyric sopranos of the day.
Bernstein has been celebrated worldwide for his championing of Mahler - and for the generally remarkable quality of his performances of that composer's oeuvre. (Many champions of a composer's work have not been the best interpreters of that body of work, so Bernstein is something of a glorious exception.)
Bernstein has also been transforming himself into one of the most consistent and stimulating musicians on a podium today. He has always been exciting, unpredictable, and occasionally erratic. Nowadays, be in it Elgar or Brahms, Mahler or Gershwin, Beethoven or Bernstein, the substance of his live performances as well his recordings for Deutsche Grammophon have put him in the uppermost echelon of living masters.
So this Mahler Second had a lot going for it. It also had, in my mind, some formidable competition - namely, a run of three performances of the work I heard with the Boston Symphony in March of '79. The soloists were the same, the conductor was Claudio Abbado. Mr. Abbado achieved a consistent level of intensity and emotional commitment in these three performances that had remained unparalleled in my concertgoing experience. He never achieved that level on his studio recording of the work with the Chicago Symphony (DG 2707 094).
From the opening gesture of Bernstein's Friday afternoon performance something exceptional began to unfold. The despairing journey of the first movement - a huge statement that veers startlingly between torment, nightmarish descents into hell, and the hope of eternal peace - Bernstein limned with exceptional care to matters of dynamics, of tempo, and of balance within the orchestra. The almost parodistic wit of the second movement was followed by the perpetual-motion third movement, ending with a vision of the final judgment.
And then, in the fourth movement, it was Miss Norman's turn. The soprano's opening phrases, delivered in full, hall-filling contralto tones, startled for their opulence and their communicative power. The leaps into her usual soprano register were done with delicacy, and always a complete sense of the mood of a poem that ends with the affirmation that God guides everyone heavenward. Then, erupting out of nowhere, the gashing opening statement of the final movement. Mahler evokes the final judgment, the terror of the earth splitting open, the last trumpets, the angelic choirs appearing to reassure mankind that hope and goodness are the final reward.
Here, Bernstein achieved what one always hopes for but all too rarely hears in a concert - a complete grasp and communication of the otherworldly vision of the composer. The final statement by the chorus of the Klopstock poem that dominates this finale was performed far slower than usual. Yet this was the first time in my experience that the music and the message melded into something profoundly inspiring.
This vividly communicative music only takes wing with the help of a conductor who has lived with the music for the better part of his career, and has refined and honed his ability to make the entire musical experience project tangibly to an audience.
Bernstein truly achieved something exalted at this concert. And he achieved it again - with more of a struggle - at the last of the four performances.
It is one of the rare privileges of concertgoing that allows one to hear two performances of a work which achieve a similar uncommon standard of excellence - thanks to an inspired maestro, two superb soloists, a solid chorus, and an orchestra willing to go along with what the conductor wants at all times.
Before closing I would like to note that the level of playing in every section of the orchestra has vastly improved these past few months. It is as if the orchestra had decided to quell criticism about its collective or individual inability to play like the great orchestra it is reputed to be. Indeed, the announcement of Zubin Mehta's contract extension, there has been a definite upswing in matters of stage decorum, attitude, and, most gratifyingly, in matters of ensemble and caliber of the playing.