New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert in London – Mahler 9

Symphony No.9

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 16 February, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Opening this four-concert New York Philharmonic residency at the Barbican Centre with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was good marketing. The Barbican Hall was packed out. Given that the Philharmonic had played this work under Kurt Masur in the same hall in 2000, comparisons were inevitable. On that memorable occasion Mahler’s other orchestra gave a hugely impressive reading, putting a subsequent account by the Vienna Philharmonic in the shade. How would Masur’s and Maazel’s successor fare? One thing was immediately clear. The New York Philharmonic – older than the Vienna Philharmonic – remains a stupendous instrument.

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Chris LeeIf quality of playing were a measure of success, the day would have been won. Nobody goes to hear Mahler 9 as an orchestral showpiece. What lies behind the notes matters. Klemperer got it right when he said of the finale: “There is no more irony, sarcasm, no resentment whatever. There is only the majesty of death”. Mahler himself, writing to Bruno Walter, said: “face to face with nothing … at a single fell stroke I have lost any calm and peace of mind I ever achieved.” In Alan Gilbert’s account abject terror had little place, eternity viewed through tinted windows from the well-upholstered back-seat of a Lincoln, no sense of “Rage, rage against the dying of the light … do not go gentle into that good night.”

What was missing was precisely that sense of a journey from anger, shock and bitterness to eventual mute acceptance. Gilbert’s tempos were generally unobjectionable although there was a tendency to lurch forward whenever Mahler indicates a more flowing tempo, such as in the opening Andante comodo and the tempo-relationships in both the second-movement Ländler and the succeeding ‘Rondo-Burleske’ failed to gel, with insufficient contrasts in the former and too unclear a distinction drawn between the progressive increases of speed in the latter. More fundamentally, much was simply too loud in a generalised way with the consequence that Mahler’s carefully calibrated dynamics (with different instruments marked to be playing at different levels at the same time) frequently failed to make their full effect – by the time we reached that cataclysmic moment in the first movement where the trombones guillotine the argument, so much sound and fury had already been expended that they were almost lost in the mêlée.

It is the quieter moments which linger in the mind. Left largely to their own devices, the members of orchestra produced some magically secure and sensitive playing in the first movement’s protracted epilogue, horns perfectly voiced and with a notably eloquent flute solo from Robert Langevin. Similarly, Cynthia Phelps’s brief but extraordinarily heartfelt viola solos invariably got to the heart of the matter and pointed up what was lacking elsewhere.

Instead of erasing all the bitterness of the preceding movements and sublimating it into transformative acceptance, the finale brought the most sumptuous string sound imaginable – the climax producing a weight and quality of sound from the (antiphonal) violins which frankly had to be heard to be believed – but very little more. How sad that so much remarkable orchestral playing should have been vitiated by the all-pervasive blandness. Giulini once commented that he did not feel ready to conduct Mozart’s G minor Symphony (K550) until he had reached a certain age. Perhaps something similar should apply to Mahler 9.

  • New York Philharmonic Barbican concerts on 17 & 18 February
  • Barbican

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