This weekend Carnegie Hall blazed with activity as English conductor Sir Antonio Pappano's debut coincided with Martha Argerich's breathlessly awaited return there after a decade. On Saturday, the atmosphere cooled slightly as Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan joined Pappano and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia for the New York première of Salvatore Sciarrino's La nuova Euridice secondo Rilke (The New Eurydice According to Rilke).

Barbara Hannigan, Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Chris Lee

The piece brings to musical life Sciarrino's new Italian translation of Rilke's poem. Pappano's brief introduction stressed the work's emphasis on emotional disconnect and alienation – its end trailing off into the "other side/of the air:/pure,/enormous,/no longer habitable" – and described the composer's version of the protagonist as an obsessive, insecure character, one constantly yearning for a security no longer possible and achievable. Hannigan, for whom the piece was written, perfectly embodied this role as she lingered between impassioned parlante and disjointed, melting singing lines. And yet, it was not always clear whether she, in her ethereal couture gown, was really at one with the narrator, or with Orpheus, or with Rilke's floating, virginal Eurydice herself. Perhaps her ambiguous persona was in keeping with the music, which echoed and synthesized breathy woodwinds and voice, low strings and percussion, the external hell of Hades' realm and the emotional disintegration of her inward confusion. Although Hannigan's obsessive, repetitive speech-like singing seemed at times to stretch its anguish too uniformly over the two movements, this was a direct consequence of the work's structure, which forces the narrative to commingle the touching with the tragic. 

Mahler's Sixth Symphony, unofficially nicknamed the "Tragic", promised to continue this theme. The thoroughly rehearsed arguments about the order of the inner movements, which everyone from philosopher Theodor W. Adorno to casual listeners today debated, seemed to have been echoed in the program itself: while the Andante was listed after the opening movement, the orchestra played the Scherzo instead. A way to please both parties, perhaps? The Andante-Scherzo version represents Mahler's second – supposedly "updated" – thoughts, but both options have their pros: the Scherzo-Andante order allows for a smoother harmonic progression into the last movement, and the Andante-Scherzo provides a more manageable experience for the hearer, who needs some relief after the driven first movement. As long as the piece's narrative comes across rationally and compellingly, it doesn't particularly matter which version we hear. 

Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Chris Lee

Unfortunately, Pappano handled the narrative progression somewhat lackadaisically, and his attention to detail was – at least on a Mahlerian scale – oftentimes not pointed enough for the symphony's small-scale and large-scale kaleidoscopic panoramas. Starting off the March on the more pedantic side of Allegro, the first movement went heavily but surely to its finish line and, despite the players' impressive technical precision and clarity, lacked the sinewy edges of Mahler's lyricism, especially in the "Alma" theme, which did not stand apart too clearly from the initial march. Because of this lack of breathing space (and, more specifically, absence of flexible pick-ups and transitions), the Scherzo, coming second, stretched the performers' energy too insistently, so by the time the exquisite Andante began, listeners' hearts (already surprised by the deviation from the printed program) were a bit too hardened by the narrative's overall squareness to open up completely to its incredible mix of soul-soothing melodies, agonizing pleas, and whispered consolations. No matter, the fourth movement, as expected, did not fail to convince, if only for the famous hammer blows, timed with near-impossible precision, which elicited the same mix of awe, appropriate discomfort and stunned bemusement from many listeners. On the whole, however, Pappano's narrative grip might have benefited from some of the insistent, theatrical neuroticism the Sciarrino overflowed with. 

The highlights of the Mahler were the Andante's anguishing climax before the final resolution to the positive and, even more compellingly, the first-movement duet between the first violin and French horn, where the commotion of the piece seemed to melt away as just two loving voices – a perfect couple – sang the most exquisitely shaped duet, a snapshot of a tender, sheltered world of dreams.