Gilbert’s Mahler Sixth: Andante before Scherzo, Three Hammer Blows

United StatesUnited States  Mahler, Symphony No. 6: New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 2.5.2012 (BH)

Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor (1903-1904; rev. 1906)

“Tingling and hyperventilating” wrote a friend after hearing Mahler’s Sixth Symphony—apparently her first encounter with it—from Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. I could have said the same, and I hope that any remaining Gilbert naysayers were in the audience to watch him and the orchestra conquering this demanding beast. It was a spellbinding evening.

As recently as the fall of 2010 Gilbert programmed the Sixth at Lincoln Center, and even in this relatively short time his interpretation has continued to develop and deepen. And the ensemble sounded sensational in the room’s warm acoustic, with consistently clean attacks, dreamlike phrasing and overall, a sense of occasion. In the first movement, the contrasts were particularly energetic. Gilbert led the initial march—and its subsequent repeats—with taut attention to tempo, while Alma’s theme was graced with a judicious bit of rubato to take it to a place far, far away. The brass section was magnificent, even if some soft moments could have been even more faint—but this was a minor quibble.

As in 2010, Gilbert chose the Andante-Scherzo order. All things considered, I still prefer the reverse, which makes the Scherzo seem like a long, if dwindling, shadow of the first movement, and allows the autumnal Andante to set up the finale’s hallucinatory colors, but there are persuasive arguments for either choice. Here, the softly beckoning strains of the Andante landed mercifully on the ears, coming so quickly after the preceding violence. Trumpet and cowbells helped create a sense of docile resignation; strings radiated the intensity of loss, especially in the high registers that dominate much of the movement.

For the Scherzo, Gilbert chose a moderate pace, alluding to the first movement rather than making a leap to the last. Strings delivered a clattering col legno, and the wind contributions—especially from bassoonist Judith LeClair—were pungent. In the finale, a small brass splatter was the sole blemish I heard from the ensemble all night—very impressive in a piece of this relentless difficulty—and Gilbert, if possible, was even more focused here than in the previous movements. The joy of delivering the hammer blows (three of them) fell to percussionist Daniel Druckman, and Eric Huebner had some beautiful strains on the celesta, in an agonizing Allegro energico. Working as one, the entire ensemble seemed energized, especially in the final pages when the music is gasping for breath. I’ve been replaying the sound of the horns here (Philip Myers, principal) for days, in those moments before Gilbert and his hardworking colleagues slammed shut the final, figurative door.

Bruce Hodges