New York Philharmonic Performs Mahler 9 in London

United StatesUnited States  Mahler: New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Barbican, London, 16.2.2012 (GDn)

Mahler: Symphony No.9

The New York Philharmonic began their short London residency with their signature symphony. The orchestra has probably played Mahler’s Ninth more often than any other ensemble, but they are able to keep it fresh, and Alan Gilbert, stepping into the shoes of some of the most famous Mahlerians of all time (including Mahler himself), delivers a lively, uncluttered and always satisfying interpretation.

Gilbert works in complete symbiosis with the orchestra. He is clearly one of their own, and there is never any feeling of alien ideas being imposed from the podium. The orchestra excels because it is able to marry clarity with subtlety, and Gilbert’s reading emphasises both qualities. He cuts a curious figure at the podium; large, ungainly and usually conducting with small nervous gestures. He gives off plenty of energy though, in fact, he is quite tiring to watch. And his communication with the orchestra is exemplary. The agogic structure of the inside movements was one of the most impressive aspects of this reading, and the way that each attack was demonstrated from the podium left no doubt as to the level of punch he was looking for.

There was so much to relish in the orchestral playing that it is difficult to know where to start. The unity of the string sound is extraordinary, and something that no London orchestra can match. The seconds sat on the right, which helped to clarify the contrapuntal textures in the first movement. But it also meant that the cellos were slightly swallowed up, an effect perhaps of the Barbican acoustic. The rock-solid bass section supported them though, although this did lead to some exceptionally bottom-heavy textures. The brass deserve a special mention. The trombone section of this orchestra is rightly famous and they were on top form this evening. Loud and brash is their standard approach, but they are also capable of a wide range of colours. The slow, shallow vibrato from the first trumpet came as a surprise, but not an unwelcome one. The horns had a good evening too. The timbral distinction between the horn and trumpet sections is something we don’t hear enough from London orchestras, but it is absolutely essential in this music. And like the trombones, the sheer range of tone colours and moods from the horn section made their every contribution musically interesting.

Neither Alan Gilbert nor, I suspect, the orchestra, are very interested in creating intrigue or mystery in this music. That’s fair enough, and what they offer instead more than compensates. But it does mean that many passages, especially at the very beginning and the very end, are considerably different from what a European orchestra might offer. Those isolated notes from various soloists around the orchestra at the start were played with absolute clarity and control, each as definite and assertive as the last.

The whole symphony played out in these clearly-defined terms, with a sense of rationality and order underpinning every texture, however complex. That’s not to say that there was no subtlety or tenderness, nor that the playing or conducting were ever rigid. In fact, Gilbert’s fluid tempi were a crucial factor in the life and energy of the performance. One or two transitions were a little awkward. Gilbert has a habit of closely shaping individual melodic lines, but when a new overlapping figure draws his attention away, the player is left on his or her own to finish the phrase, and sometimes the results can be ragged.

The inside movements were a real tour de force. The ländler of the second movement was anything but rustic, but it was certainly lively, and Gilbert very quickly whipped it up into a storm. The third movement worked because of those surprisingly heavy accents. Gilbert opted for a moderate tempo, the better perhaps to show off the detail of the orchestral textures in the climaxes, and the rhythms and accents gave the music all the energy and momentum it could need.

The brass and timpani were the heroes of this third movement, but in the fourth attention passed to equally impressive contributions from the strings and woodwind. Throughout much of this concluding movement (it’s not really a finale is it?), the strings provide a substantial and continuous bed of sound onto which other ideas are projected. Gilbert was happy for this to sound quite undifferentiated, which risked monotony but was redeemed by the sheer quality of the string sound. There were some excellent solos from the woodwind here, and the throaty sound of the cor anglais was a particular treat.

A story was going round the internet a few weeks ago about a mobile phone going off in a NYPO performance of Mahler 9 in New York. Apparently they had reached the last page of the score, and Gilbert, incensed that the ending had been ruined, stopped, gave the hapless audience member a dressing down and resumed from the previous climax. Well, listening to the way he handles this conclusion, it is understandable why he was angry it had been disrupted. Like the opening, the quiet textures here were absolutely clear and defined, with no trace of mystery or ambiguity of any sort. But Mahler puts all the subtleties that are needed for this conclusion in the score, so by just following the instructions, and by making sure every note, however quiet, is presented unambiguously, Gilbert was able to produce exactly the right effect.

There was nothing daring about this interpretation, and it is unlikely to raise controversy. But everything in it worked, and it was clear from every note that the orchestra, the conductor, and the symphony itself are close acquaintances, old friends who know exactly how to bring out the best in each other.

Gavin Dixon