In a way, listeners must prepare to hear a piece like Mahler's Second as they would to go to church: clear the mind, open the heart, and, importantly, remind oneself of all the relevant teachings and bookends in the (musical) scripture. On one hand, hearing insistently intense, inward music such as Mahler’s in person is a necessarily failed process of intention; one cannot but inadequately reconcile their own private mood, and everyday states of mind, with the music’s canvas of expression, which attempts eternity in its scope, and to contemplate every part of this canvas and its higher synthesis into "the whole,” whatever that is, simultaneously. On the other hand, if there is any piece that coerces even the most reluctant, distracted listener into feeling things they weren’t prepared for, wishing to feel, or thought they were able to feel that day, it is Mahler Second. This subtle conflict between performance and the text, interpretation and “the music itself,” came through compellingly in this Carnegie Hall matinee by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov.

Semyon Bychkov conducts the Czech Philharmonic © Stefan Cohen
Semyon Bychkov conducts the Czech Philharmonic
© Stefan Cohen

At the risk of emulating many a Mahlerian narrative of romanticized musical self-identification, I must confess that I was in a rather emotionally susceptible mood before the concert began; I was ready for my cleansing Mahlerian experience, and was a willing follower that day. As ever, the initial cello and bass recitative gripped my emotional attention, and, subverting my intellectual expectation, moved along rather more quickly than average under Bychkov’s baton (and this does not usually happen with him). Soon enough, however, the conductor’s calculated rhythmic contouring ironically encouraged some unnecessary mushiness in the orchestra's execution — often in the brass section — and his too-curated phrase endings knocked some of the intensity off the spontaneous musical unfolding and surprising narrative turns. I was left wishing either for more sublimity, especially at the most violent cadence in the first moment, where the famous dissonant chord clashes insistently until C minor returns — or, on the other hand, left wanting more lightness, Viennese charm, and gemütlich Ländler-esque tilt, such as in the second movement.

The extreme switch between the deafening intensity of the first movement and the adorableness of the second is a built-in component of the piece, and could often turn into a narratological problem, where listeners hear it only in parentheses, so Mahler stipulated that the second movement should be played after a short five-minute pause of solemn silence. This was the only performance I’ve heard which actually observed this remark, so I thought it would have automatically helped dispel some of the excess first-movement energy; but the second still felt limp rather than flexible, tailored rather than sparkly. Was my displeasure a symptom of the performance, or “my fault”? I wondered, dutifully aware of how appropriately Mahlerian this conundrum was.

Elisabeth Kulman, Christiane Karg, Semyon Bychkov, Prague Philharmonic Choir, Czech Philharmonic © Stefan Cohen
Elisabeth Kulman, Christiane Karg, Semyon Bychkov, Prague Philharmonic Choir, Czech Philharmonic
© Stefan Cohen

The third movement shared a similar problem, lacking in sufficient irony and playfulness, but the performers, especially mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman, began the fourth, and its teleological narrative to follow, with remarkable grace. Kulman might have seemed to enter a bit timidly, but her voice opened up warmly and her affective engagement was persuasive throughout. As the various additional forces of this heavy, serious narrative joined the initial, singular voice representing fragile humanity, one could feel the impossibility of resisting. The chorus, trained by Lukáš Vasilek, achieved both beautifully intimate and sublime sounds; the offstage-onstage exchange was well timed; the most intense heart-gripping moments of emotional reassurance did their thing; tears flowed; amazing performance. It is difficult to keep one’s critical guards up when human broken-heartedness, healing, salvation, and eternal transcendence are concerned — but one cannot help to wonder once in a while, how much of this is the result of expectation, a necessary symptom of Mahler 2, and how much of it is performative, a result of the particular moment? The right answer probably is, it’s a bit of each, and the most honest answer is, we might never know for sure.