New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert at Carnegie Hall – Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

Symphony No.6

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 2 May, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Chris LeeIn its once-a-year appearance in Carnegie Hall’s acoustically splendid Stern Auditorium, the New York Philharmonic and music director Alan Gilbert offered a performance of Mahler’s overpowering Sixth Symphony that varied little interpretively from less than two years ago at Avery Fisher Hall. On this Carnegie occasion, they seemed content to focus more on producing loud climaxes and lush lyricism than on ensemble precision. Long fortissimo stretches in the outer movements did not leave a strong or lasting impression, and although the strings played with fervent intensity for the most part, Gilbert’s over-romanticizing of lyrical themes deprived them of much of their dynamic thrust. The performance was also disaffected by ragged entrances in the woodwinds and rounded-off rather than articulate attacks in the brass.

The most significant problem with this performance was the lack of an overall conception of the work as a symphonic drama. In the Sixth Symphony, Mahler sought to capture the essence of humanity’s tragic struggle against mortality. It is a ‘hero’s life’. Mahler’s antagonist is the hero’s inner demon, engaging him in a life-and-death struggle and intent on destroying his self-confidence. Even though the hero is taunted by the demon’s mockery, tortured by a wistful reverie of more peaceful times and subjected to strokes of fate in the midst of his courageous fight to redeem life’s true worth, he ultimately succumbs to his fate, cut down without achieving his goal.

Gilbert treated this compelling music-drama as just another late-romantic symphony, his Aristotelian ‘nothing to excess’ sense of moderation significantly limiting the music’s power to shock and terrify us. (Benjamin Zander had it right when he said that when hearing Mahler’s Sixth you should feel as if you’ve been slapped in the face.) Gilbert made no noticeable effort to plumb the depths of the work, apparently satisfied to reproduce verbatim what appears in the score. The result was lacking in direction and character.

While the march-theme of the first movement was strong and demonstrative, the so-called ‘Alma’ theme was exaggeratedly effusive, imbued with long-lined legato phrasing. Mahler told his wife that this theme expressed her character, but in the context of the symphony it represents the hero’s mate, who fights alongside him and provides the saving power that wins, at least for the time being, at the end of the movement, and needed more thrust and vigorous intensity than Gilbert’s smoothed-over treatment afforded it.

Gilbert once again chose the order of the inner movements as Andante-Scherzo, thereby downplaying the latter’s devilish mimicry of the heroic march of the first movement, although following Mahler’s preference (see link below). Confined to the straight and narrow, the Andante suffered from colorless playing, and lacked poignancy and depth of expression. Some character-less playing by the woodwinds during the scherzo’s trio section, a wickedly playful minuet interrupted a few times by inane figuration, completely undercut Mahler’s clever device of using courtly dance-music as a means by which the demonic antagonist mocks the hero’s self-confident mannerisms expressed in the opening movement.

In the finale the orchestra did rise to the occasion with some strong, even vital, playing that was especially impressive in the main march subject and the vibrant D major theme that resounded with the hope for victory. But a maudlin, overly sentimentalized approach to the lyrical material weakened what should be constant tension that keeps the music focused and moving fervently toward a redemptive goal, even if it is never reached. Gilbert reinserted the third hammer blow, even though Mahler eliminated it when he revised the order of the inner movements. The composer also suggested that the hammer strokes should be somewhat weaker with each successive blow, implying that they so debilitate the hero that less and less force is needed to destroy him. In this performance, however, each stroke became stronger. The brass was encouraged to play out with full force during the extensive development section. Gilbert fell short of generating enough urgency between the first two hammer blows and dragged the orchestra into the second so doggedly that any feeling of anxiety at its approach was derailed. Only after the second did the performance come alive, as if in anticipation of the devastating outburst that follows the somber brass chorale at the end.

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