Ed's talk: Sep 23, 2009

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Alan Gilbert does Mahler's Third

Ordinarily, when I write about a performance such as this, it is from a telecast but this time I was in Avery Fisher Hall on the left side of the orchestra level.

I was hardly enthralled by the televised opening gala of a few days ago which I reviewed here as well. But Mahler's Third Symphony is a far more interesting experience than anything played on that occasion and Alan Gilbert, the new music director sounded infinitely more involved in its performance than in the creaky Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique of the gala. And for once, the Philharmonic even sounded interested enough in what they were doing to rehearse it.

The result was a memorable reading of a not-often done work by a familiar composer. The Symphony, of course, is rooted in song with the third movement based on Mahler's "Ablösung im Sommer" from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the fourth a setting of an odd poem by Nietzsche and the fifth an expansion for mezzo-soprano, women's and boys' choirs of a song also from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

I suppose the main reason for its comparative rarity in the concert hall is the sheer size of the performing forces needed and it's sheer length as well. (It was done here without intermission!) And, in this performance, one is immediately struck by the almost deafening sound coming from the stage for much of the piece. The first movement whose first theme reminds me strongly of the "chorale" theme from the last movement of Brahms 1st symphony, is a huge structure and and one of the most expansive extensions of the old sonata form ever attempted. Gilbert and the Philharmonic did this about as well as I've heard but I wish he'd have curbed his enthusiasm for sheer volume just a smidgen. But it had all the energy it needed without the Lincoln-Center standard practice of substituting facial expressions and the Lennyian jumping up and down for expression. And I think it will also have more of the delicacy that is needed after more experience with the piece.

This movement is the usual mixture of extended military marches, lyricism and mysticism and I was surprised to see a man (obviously a percussionist) walking offstage at one point and the drum flourishes-tattoos before the recap coming from there. Nothing else in the Symphony is nearly as long as this movement.

The "minuet" follows and it too takes on symphonic proportions during its duration. There is a "trio" section which is supposed to be played by a posthorn but rarely is. (I think Philip Myers used a regular horn but he played beautifully for a change.) Oddly, the theme here seems an echo of the "Jota Aragonese" slower section that Liszt also quoted in his Rhapsodie Espagnole.

The "scherzo", as I wrote earlier is based on an early Mahler song about a dead cuckoo and "Frau Nachtigall" who replaces it. (In the interest of veracity, the nightingale that sings is always a male; the female doesn't sing!) This too is greatly expanded from the original song and, of course, is purely instrumental.

The "Midnight Song" of Nietzsche was nicely sung by the mezzo-soprano Petra Lang with some rather strange diction. For example, she managed to draw out the word "Mensch" to about 2 syllables stressing the "sh" of the word for some strange reason.

Ms. Lang also joined all of the performing forces in the next movement with the Women of the Westminster Chorale and the American Boychoir and here I was a little disappointed. It seemed to me to lack the sonority it needed and the "Bimm Bamms" of the boys didn't seem to ring out as they should. This may have been due to the sometimes treacherous acoustics of the hall or perhaps to where we were sitting in relation to the choir. The thematic material that this movement, and also the minuetto to some extent, has in common with the 4th Symphony is explained by the fact that the last movement of that Symphony was originally meant to be part of this work, thus making it even longer!!!

But I think the conductor and orchestra redeemed themselves in the last movement which was as fine and expressive as one could hope for.

The new seating arrangement worked very well here.

On the whole, the best performance from the New York Philharmonic I've heard and it gives me hope for its future after the nearly moribund periods that preceded this one.