Mahler Festival Leipzig: Gilbert – New York Philharmonic – Fifth Symphony

Mahler: New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor) Gewandhaus, Leipzig, 23.5.2011 (JFL)

Mahler: Symphony No.5


In Leipzig’s assembly of great Mahler-orchestras, Mahler’s own—the New York Philharmonic—cannot be missing, just as the Concertgebouw and Vienna are also present at the International Mahler Festival. The New York Philharmonic’s appearance in the Fifth Symphony and the Kindertotenlieder with Thomas Hampson was hopelessly sold out (along with Vienna / M9 and the three performances of Leipzig M8, and—eventually—London M1), and not unlike the night before, my expectations were low… the memories of too many listless New York Philharmonic performances on snooze-control (especially, but not exclusively under Lorin Maazel) sat too deep. And while I had not yet heard them under their new Kapellmeister, in-house choice (in a manner of speaking) Alan Gilbert struck me as surprising more than inspiring.

Before the concert started I was briefly baffled by the half page used just to list the New York Philharmonic’s associations and sponsors. While it might be the good right of sponsors to be sure their name comes up every time the orchestra lifts a bow or stick, even if this means printing cumbersome mouth-fulls like “Principal Percussion – The Constance R. Hoguet Friends of the Philharmonic Chair”, it’s a little over the top that Steinway needs to be listed as the “Official Piano” of the New York Philharmonic (which makes me wonder what the surreptitiously-used piano of the New York Philharmonic is, or why it’s listed in a concert that didn’t, at any point, require a piano). Just as silly is the non-descript yet desperate reminder that the Fifth Symphony of Mahler is “available in a performance of the New York Philharmonic”. Is that so?! Clearly the work of PR departments run amok, forgetting the principle that less is usually more and that yelling the loudest does not always make the most coherent argument. Except, of course, if that were to hint at the style of music-making of the New York Philharmonic; in that case the strategy hints of genius.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.5,
V.Neumann / Leipzig Gewandhaus
Brilliant or Berlin Classics
available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Kindertotenlieder,
L.Bernstein / T.Hampson / WPh
Mahler in Leipzig on S&H: 
Sy. No.3 / Dresden St.Kap. / Salonen
Sy. No.10 / MDRSO / Märkl
Das Lied / Concertgebouw / Luisi
Sy. No.7 / BRSO / Nezét-Séguin
Sy. No.1 / LSO / Gergiev
Sy. No.6 / Tonhalle / Zinman
Sy. No.4 / MCO / Harding

Kindertotenlieder: I know and believe Thomas Hampson (WETA interview here) that he wants to open doors with his singing; that he thinks more deeply about Mahler than most every other performer… that he’s in it with his heart, not only with his beautiful voice. (And what a voice he has!) But unfortunately I can’t yet follow him into those interpretations beyond the terrific surface they offer. The orchestra held back nicely during the five very different songs, and accompanied very well… even where it could or should have played the more dominant musical role. Loud, and immensely beautiful, and obviously styled to fit (or express) the content of the oft-misunderstood part of Mahler’s œvre as Hampson’s interpretation was, I was left with the feeling of inexplicable indifference, except for the last moments of the concluding “In diesem Wetter” where a brief intoxicating moment between Hampson and orchestra conjured up moments very reminiscent of (or foreshadowing) Das Lied von der Erde.

Left strangely lukewarm and with lowered expectations, the Fifth Symphony turned out a splendid surprise. From the spot-on trumpet opening to tender timpani rolls to some very deft, soft orchestral touches, this turned into a highly concerto for orchestra; a virtuoso showpiece that showed off the orchestra and individual instruments. The third movement displayed the character of individual instruments more clearly; transitions (such as from trumpets to violins) were honed to perfection. The lulling, mildly indulgent Adagietto sucked some power out of the performance, but most of it was regained in the glorious finale. The brass section sounded wonderfully reedy (no blare & glare) throughout. The first violins—though all over the place individually—were an ultimately homogenous bunch and—this the true surprise—at attention, instead of bored. I hesitate to blame this all on Alan Gilbert, but something has clearly happened with the New York Philharmonic… and presumably, hopefully beyond the ‘playing-abroad’ effect.

With the playing this good and flamboyantly impressive (with a good deal of superficial Technicolor to enhance contrasts), it nearly went unnoticed that there was a total absence of interpretation. That, and the wholly unnecessary Bernstein-encore (Pas de deux – Lonely Town from “On the Town” – ‘because the first time Gilbert ever heard the Fifth was with Bernstein’), were the only marked quibbles of an impressive, not exceptional, evening.
Jens F. Laurson