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Agent provocateur
Giuseppe Sinopoliís Mahler in all its wild, woolly glory

"People often say that I do provocative things," the conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli once said, "but in fact I only stick to what is there in the score. What is provocative about someone like me is that I donít imitate something that has already been set down in a recording."

For anyone who knows Sinopoliís work ó from recordings or concerts, or merely by the reputation that often preceded him ó this statement must seem perverse. From the start of his career up to his sudden death on the podium of the Deutsche Oper a year ago at age 54, he divided critics, musicians, and listeners like few other musical figures. He was fond of lecturing orchestras at length on the philosophical and historical underpinnings of the music he conducted, a habit that didnít endear him to many. His way of making music was held to be so bizarre that many prominent conductors (including Riccardo Muti and Simon Rattle) severed their relations with Londonís Philharmonia Orchestra after he took over as principal conductor in 1985. Imitate others he certainly didnít, but often the consensus was that this was to his detriment. The critical flutter was all over the map: perhaps he was psychoanalyzing composers, drawing out the latent content behind the notes (he had a doctorate in psychiatry); perhaps he wanted to show that Romantic music was a foreshadowing of the breakdown of tonality, if you pulled it apart correctly; perhaps he just couldnít conduct. But the one thing the musical world was sure of was that he didnít "stick to what was there in the score."

Yet after a few weeks of listening to his collected Mahler recordings ó newly reissued by Deutsche Grammophon in a 15-CD box set ó Iíve come to think that thereís a sense in which his statement is quite true: he does stick to whatís there in the music ó or rather, whatís hidden within the music. Sinopoliís intention isnít to execute the score as faithfully as possible by adhering scrupulously to its letter; rather, what interests him are those parts of the score that usually go unheard. Of course, this sometimes obliges him to override the composerís stated directions and reconstrue dynamics, tempo, and phrasing. At a time when composersí intentions are being taken as gospel, these sorts of reimaginings donít usually sit well; hence the outrage Sinopoliís work has so often provoked.

But no composer has more strange things packed into his music than Mahler, and listening to this set as an overall project, I began to think of it as the first cycle distinctly intended to be an alternate view of Mahlerís works (there being plenty of more conventional readings out there). Glenn Gould, another great radical, once advised a listener to go to Artur Schnabel to hear Beethoven the way it was intended to be played ó Gould was interested in something else. So, I think, was Sinopoli.

To get an idea of the strange things he found, skip straight to the Third Symphony. (Youíll bypass a fine performance of the early cantata Das klagende Lied and decent but unidiomatic readings of the first two symphonies.) Throughout his reading I was struck by the frequency with which accompaniment takes precedence over melody. In the first movement, the tremolos in the winds and strings that depict nature awakening often stand out over the big melodies in the brass. In opening of the second movement, a lumbering tempo helps Sinopoli to make the pizzicato accompaniment in the violas just as prominent as the famous oboe melody. His approach makes for an illuminating contrast with that of his compatriot Claudio Abbado: where Abbado calibrates the playing so that all the counterpoint can be heard clearly, Sinopoli picks the line heís interested in and makes it stick out like a sore thumb.

And the biggest sore thumb of all comes at the end of that second movement. Right after the violins finish their chromatic lines, the music returns to its home key of A major. And then from out of nowhere, three bars before the end, the second violins slide up an entire octave. (It sounds a lot like the ondes martenot that Messiaen was fond of using.) Hearing it for the first time, I was bowled over: in the many other recordings I know, Iíd never heard that violin glissando before. Perhaps it wasnít meant to stand out so nakedly, but itís there, and itís just the sort of strange thing Sinopoli wants you to hear. His peculiar way of "sticking to the score" made me hear the movement in a fresh light.

If the Third Symphony represents a rethink of balances, itís tempos that get the workout in the Fifth. Here Sinopoli pushes and pulls at them so much that the workís architecture becomes less important than the dramatic significance accorded to each individual moment. At the opening of the second movement, thereís an ostinato in the cellos and basses followed by a sharply accented chord in the trumpets. Mahler asks for a slight ritard between the two, but Sinopoli allows the basses and cellos to crescendo into the trumpetsí cry. The effect, however exaggerated, sounds sinister and menacing, and it contrasts well with the galloping pace he whips up soon afterward.

At no point does the drama falter in this recording. Climaxes are milked for all their force, and accents are always razor-sharp. The famous Adagietto is taken at an unfashionably slow tempo, but the feeling is so open and the playing so beautiful that resistance becomes futile. The finale has a fleetness and grace absent from most other readings. The symphony may not hold together as a whole, but itís a thrilling ride nonetheless, punctuated by some audible grunts and groans from the podium.

In the Seventh Symphony, one of Mahlerís most imaginatively scored works, Sinopoli again uses tempo relations in the service of instrumental color. The string tremolos in the slow introduction to the first movement are heard as separate individual notes, so that theyíre set apart from the same notes in the woodwinds. The leaden tempo in the Nachtmusik second movement forces you to hear each of Mahlerís bird calls in the winds as a separate line; they seem to be stumbling over one another ó just the way a noisy flock of birds would sound. Again, principal lines are passed over while details that catch the conductorís ear ó strings playing on the bridge, odd instrumental combinations, repeated motifs ó get brought out of left field and into the foreground. It would be a fantastic overall performance if not for a truly wayward account of the finale and some less than stellar playing by the Philharmonia.

The jewel of this set is a magnificent account of the Eighth Symphony, Mahlerís grandest musical experiment. Here itís as if Mahlerís conception were so outsized that Sinopoli could do nothing more radical than embrace it completely. Whatever musical oddities crop up are simply swept along in the tremendous passion this performance generates. The first movement (a setting of the hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus") is all speed and power, whereas in the second (the final scene of Goetheís Faust) Sinopoli shows his skill in pacing the ebb and flow of a complex musical journey. He also does a great job accompanying the huge cast of singers, reminding you why he was so highly regarded as an opera conductor. Itís always been my favorite recording of this near-impossible work.

The last performance in the set is in some ways the most peculiar. The late song cycle Das Lied von der Erde was recorded in 1996 with the Dresden Staatskapelle, whose directorship Sinopoli had assumed after leaving the Philharmonia. The German orchestra gives this recording a lucidity its English counterparts couldnít always summon. The result is a transparent reading in which all the colors of Mahlerís sound palette are laid out, and it sounds disarmingly natural and unaffected. No wild distortions or readjustments, just refined, idiomatic Mahler playing. This makes for a deeply moving account of Das Liedís great final song, "Der Abschied," with some terrific wind playing and wonderful singing by Iris Vermillion.

Whether this or any other performance in the box constitutes a "critical benchmark" seems to me beside the point. Some of these readings are, of course, less successful than others ó the Fourth and Sixth come to mind ó but each has something to say about Mahler, and the finest ones offer perspectives on the music that are hard to come by from conductors more intent on absolute fidelity to the score. And Das Lied shows the extent to which Sinopoli could transcend his usual willfulness and lay out a piece of music with an almost Zen-like simplicity. It brings to mind yet another of his counterintuitive quips: "The conductor must make it possible to eliminate himself in the music. If the orchestra feels him doing that, then everything will go well."

Issue Date: July 11 - 18, 2002
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