Gerhild Romberger (mezzo-soprano)
Leipzig Opera and Gewandhaus Choir (women’s voices)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Children’s Choir
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 11 September, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The Third did not get a Proms hearing in whole or in part until the Mahler boom of the 1960s. (In 1962 Norman Del Mar was on the podium with Helen Watts the mezzo soloist.) Today the problems are not so much technical as emotional, the work’s familiarity bringing problems of its own. That old sense of occasion is not easily recaptured.
In John Drummond’s gossipy but essential memoir, Tainted by Experience (Faber), he writes of the risks involved in asking any ensemble to play Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at the Proms in the wake of Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. I approached this concert with vaguely similar qualms. Having been present at Claudio Abbado’s remarkable 2007 rendition of Mahler’s Third, perhaps the ultimate expression of his own super-refined way with the composer, I no doubt unfairly gave Donald Runnicles’s 2010 concert a miss. Riccardo Chailly, originally scheduled to conduct in 2014, seemed to promise a more radical alternative, brighter, more muscular. (Having dumped the Mengelberg tradition which obsessed him in Amsterdam, he now favours faster tempos, cleaner textures and a certain technocratic rigidity – the package generally deemed ‘authentic’ in Beethoven and Brahms.)
In the event, Chailly having broken his arm, Alan Gilbert was the surprise man on the rostrum. Not that he is any stranger to Mahler. He was at the helm of his own orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, for a unique performance of Mahler’s previous, ‘Resurrection’ Symphony which, in remembrance and renewal, marked the tenth anniversary of the events of ‘9/11’. I had not realised that he began his first New York subscription season with performances of No.3. He knows the music well enough to dispense with the printed copy. But does he have a vision of his own?
This was a beautifully enunciated but oddly lightweight account of a work which if not a paragon of organic growth still needs to come across – somehow – as all of a piece. Taking only 33 minutes over the first movement, Gilbert made it sound more than usually random and rather jolly, more like a divertissement than a symphonic opener. Still there were many felicities on offer. With violins antiphonally placed and a warm core of violas and cellos, the sound was satisfyingly coherent, the winds characterful, the pianissimos real. It was by no means merely brisk and business-like. In his way Gilbert was a deft pilot, bringing out subtler textures often lost in the melee. The second movement was at times rather self-consciously moulded but who wants a po-faced treatment of the ‘flowers of the meadow’?
The third movement was again predominantly brisk – Chailly might have approved – but with more attempt at Bernstein-style flexibility and menace. The excellent posthorn solos seemed to come from somewhere offstage right. In the fourth Gerhild Romberger was superb, more firmly focused than Christiane Stotijn in Daniel Harding’s ‘Resurrection’ (Prom 57), less the aloof, old-style contralto. Following Simon Rattle, Abbado and others, Gilbert may have ruffled a few feathers with his literal reading of Mahler’s ‘hinaufziehen’ (pulled up glissando) marking, making more specific – and uglifying – the allusions to bird-cries on oboe and cor anglais. In context, the squeaky-clean choral work in the fifth came as no surprise. The finale too was beautifully articulated, not as ‘spiritual’ as it might have been, more an apt showcase for the wonderful Leipzig strings. Again, rapture came a little too easily without much sense of a man in torment struggling towards inner harmony. Gilbert was much brasher than Abbado in those overloaded final bars, giving the timpani full reign (Abbado took the liberty of bringing them right down).
The full house was appropriately enthusiastic and, in the main, attentive for all that there were at least three different ring-tones peppering the opening movement and another to preface the ardent hymn-like theme for strings which launches the finale. Applause too in places where one could have done without it. The orchestra, not quite immaculate, sounded terrific.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms