Errant Cows in Mediocre Mahler

12/02/2012

Mahler: Kent Nagano (conductor), Munich Philharmonic, Gasteig Philharmonic Hall, Munich, 11.2.2012 (JFL)

Mahler: Symphony No.6

Saturday, September 11th, I strategically attended the third performance of the Munich Philharmonic in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony under Kent Nagano—in the usually justified hope that the orchestra would be at its best. “Maybe even play together”, as one player cheekily suggested beforehand. By some accounts it may well have been the best performance, but still it was musically and interpretively nondescript.

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G.Mahler, Symphony No.6
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B.Zander / Philharmonia Orchestra
Telarc 3 SACDs

It is difficult to say what disappointed more: Hearing a less than ho-hum Mahler Sixth after two stand-out performances of the work last May—Mariss Jansons’ in Munich (BRSO) and David Zinman’s in Leipzig (Tonhalle Orchestra)—or hearing such a faceless run-through from Nagano after great, indeed sublime Wagner-conducting just last week (or the two best concerts amid an already great 2011 Salzburg summer) from him.

In its way, Mahler’s Sixth is almost as imposing a work as Das Rheingold, and hopping over the river to conduct the Munich Philharmonic he started out with the weight of rolling thunder flooding the Philharmonic Hall’s acoustic in the Allegro energico. But after that, the addendum to the movement’s title “ma non troppo” took reign and the movement got lost in the interpretive equivalent of ‘whatever’, with real howlers from the solo trumpet and solo horn and smudgy ensemble work in the busiest passages where the sections, if only ever briefly, pulled in different directions.

The second movement—Nagano gratifyingly chose the Scherzo for that position—sagged further; the Andante looked desperately for the force that would have, as if necessarily, hurl itself into the Finale which was now well played (superb timpani) and very capably steered to its shattering climaxes (two hammer-blows) and scattered, dystopian end. Unfortunately the effectiveness of the music was further sabotaged by the most unfortunate decision to place the cowbells at a central turret that overlooks much at the audience seating. Instead of creating otherworldly sounds of solitude out of nowhere, the result was a gimmicky, involuntarily funny, distracting, alien element that provided no benefits whatever—at least to the gros of the audience under its direct spell. An errant cow stumbling across stage might have done better. (Indeed, this Tonhalle Orchestra auditioning tape shows us it would definitely have been better.) Disappointment, where one expected so much Moo!
Jens F. Laurson

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