Not Yet a True Mahlerian: Alan Gilbert Conducts Mahler’s 5th

Mahler: Symphony No. 5, Alan Gilbert (Conductor), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City 27.04.2011 (SSM)

In years past, every major symphony orchestra and conductor would have been obligated to follow the unspoken rule that they would never achieve the greatest heights in music until they performed and/or recorded all the Beethoven symphonies. Nowadays the same seems to hold true for those of Mahler. Even though it is an anniversary year (Mahler died in 1911), the number of performances as well as complete cycles is staggering. Every conductor, it seems, would like to be known as a “true Mahlerian.”

Alan Gilbert has a long way to go in this regard, having conducted only three Mahler symphonies with the NYPO: the First on tour and outdoors, the Sixth last season, and now the Fifth. His performance of the Sixth Symphony back in September was moderately successful; as with this performance of the Fifth, I found some things to complain about but very little to praise.

The problems with last night’s performance were more conceptual in nature than orchestral or technical, and had to do with Gilbert’s difficulty in shaping the musical lines of Mahler’s phrasing. To take examples from the first movement: right before the Funeral March begins there is a descending phrase played forte by the French horns. Without the right shaping, accenting and slight angularity, this can sound dull and flat rather than supremely tragic. Similarly, the Funeral March here is like most marches or waltzes in Mahler: never straightforward but always a bit sarcastic, bombastic or simply inebriated. Gilbert didn’t quite get this. Mahler’s irony was missing.

In the second movement, the tempo and dynamics were there, but the wildness that Mahler clearly specifies was diminished. He calls for the music to be played like “an intensely rushing storm” and with “the greatest vehemence.”  With a description such as this how can it be played other than fiercely and savagely?  The opening attacks by the horns should sound like spikes going through metal. The return to the Funeral March tempo at the “Bedeutend langsamer” marking should be striking with the added upper voices, but wasn’t. The transition from this movement into the Scherzo is marked “long pause follows.” This pause separates the First Part from the quite different Second. I guess it’s not really Gilbert’s fault that what filled the long pause was a coughing epidemic, although I don’t remember any such problem with Gergiev’s Mahler. (I don’t think anyone would have dared to cough in the latter Maestro’s presence).

The third movement, marked Scherzo, is a mix of different moods, starting with rollicking horns played “powerfully, but not too fast,” moving on to a slower (“ruhiger”) section, back to the first tempo, on to a “Molto moderato,” then to a smoother less raucous section (“Fliessender”), etc. More than the others this movement requires the conductor to create a musical arch that clarifies the beginning, the rich plaintive central section and the fiery “Piu mosso” and “Nach rascher” that conclude the movement. But here, the sudden changes in style and tempo seemed arbitrary.

What can be said about the Adagietto that hasn’t been said before?  As long as the movement avoids being histrionic on one side and overly limpid on the other, its pathos will come through. Gilbert may have erred slightly towards a conservative coolness, but it still was clear why this is Mahler’s most appealing and popular piece, often performed by itself.

The final movement starts quietly but suddenly speeds up. Gilbert played this with tremendous vigor and intensity but pressed forward a bit too uniformly, so that by the time the coda was reached there was little room left for dynamic change. Gilbert’s one and only feet-off-the-ground leap added a visual representation of the closing Allegro moltos and final Presto, but was too late to produce its aural equivalent.

Perhaps, I’ve been a little too harsh on Gilbert since it was not in any way a terrible performance. For me, it just wasn’t a satisfying one.

Stan Metzger