For the second of its two Carnegie Hall concerts the Munich Philharmonic offered a puzzling combination of music: two Austro-German Symphonies preceded by the stylistically unrelated Afternoon of a Faun. Its opening flute solo, freely phrased, set the stage for a colorful and atmospheric reading, Valery Gergiev showing great affinity for Debussy's rapturous and languorous score.
For the Schubert, contrary to current practice, Gergiev retained the string sections in full (fifteen first-violins down to eight double basses) yet producing a transparent and warm tone. Only occasionally did they overwhelm the woodwinds, such as at the end of the Finale’s exposition. Here Gergiev took the speed to the limit of what could be executed cleanly, while in the other movements he opted for a more moderate approach, the Andante moving along pleasantly.
However, tempos turned problematic in the Mahler, in which the composer has given indications denoting peaceful moods (if with many variations) for the four movements – I: Pensive. Not hurried; II: In leisurely movement. Without haste; III: Restful; IV: Very much at ease. Only in the second did Gergiev manage to achieve the required character. Most disappointing in this respect was the third. Its opening section, with three-part divided cellos, is one of Mahler's most beautiful passages; here it lacked repose and the music lost its magic. Throughout the Symphony there was underlying tension and a slight pushing forward, which led to some minor rhythmic and ensemble problems, and eventually a really noticeable one at the soprano's “Sankt Ursula”.
When to bring on the singer, not required until the end? Gergiev's solution counts among the less successful – having her enter during the slow movement’s climax (Alan Gilbert did similarly recently, link below – Ed.). It created a theatrical moment: Genia Kühmeier emerged to deliberately stride across the front of the stage and past the podium. Standing well in front of the orchestra, Kühmeier projected easily and could adopt the light, unforced timbre appropriate to the innocence of this Wunderhorn setting, which Mahler had considered incorporating into his Third Symphony as “What the child tells me”. Kühmeier used this pure quality especially well during the closing section (“Kein Musik”), where – although it is marked Tempo I – Gergiev slowed to a relaxed pace and finally arrived at the peaceful mood Mahler had been asking for all along.