Lucerne Festival (3) – Magnificent Mahler from Gilbert and the Gewandhaus  

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Lucerne Festival  (3) Mahler  Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Ladies of the Leipzig Opera Choir (chorus-master Alessandro Zuppardo), Ladies of the Gewandhaus Choir (chorus-master Gregor Meyer), Gewandhaus Childrens‘ Chorus (Frank-Steffen Elster chorus-master), Gerhild Romberger (Alto), , Alan Gilbert (conductor), Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern, Lucerne 8.9.2014 (JR)


Alan Gilbert in New York, 11/18/09.  Photo by Chris Lee.
Alan Gilbert in New York, 11/18/09. Photo by Chris Lee.

Mahler: Symphony No. 3


Schoenberg, in 1904, upon hearing the rehearsals in Vienna for Mahler’s Third Symphony, was forced to reconsider his initially hot-headed dismissal of the older master. In a letter to Mahler he wrote: “I saw your very soul….I saw a man in torment struggling towards inner harmony”. He had made sense of this colossal construction (most others listeners had not) and recognised the depiction in music of nothing less than the universal, cosmic soul. Lucerne Festival this year chose as its over-arching theme “Psyche”, the power that music can wield over our soul. Mahler’s Third was therefore a highly appropriate work for the Festival.

 Riccardo Chailly, the Gewandhaus’ Principal Conductor, had the extreme misfortune, some weeks ago, to break his right arm; luckily in stepped Alan Gilbert, Principal Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, who surprisingly had not conducted at the Lucerne Festival before. (I read that Chailly has now recovered and will be back on the podium soon). I wondered, as the performance progressed, how Chailly’s interpretation of this work might have differed from Gilbert’s, perhaps a touch less brash?  Certainly Abbado (whose photo and the words “In Memoriam” appear in every programme at the Festival) would have played it with more sensitivity. Having said that, Gilbert’s approach to the work was both intelligent and convincing. He is not at all new to the work, and conducted without a score.

 He contrasted the forceful, energetic passages with the delicate, always chose judicious dynamics and tempi (apart from one moment, read on).

 The long first movement was hard-edged and muscular (Gilbert is a bear of a man); at times I feared Gilbert might suffer Chailly’s fate and wrench his right arm out of its socket. When the fine principal trombone had his solo, Gilbert lingered too long for comfort. There followed fine contributions from all principal woodwind and the trombones.

 My last concert at this Festival was a few days ago, the Berlin Philharmonic: they had been full of finesse, precision, polish, with stand-out principal players: the Gewandhaus were wholly different – no one principal really stood out, they came over however as a well-blended team, with warm central European sound, and looked as though they were enjoying the performance (the Berliners simply looked as though they were doing their job, albeit immaculately). Sadly the Gewandhaus brass suffered too many lip-faults for comfort, not unusual in a Mahler 3; overall the orchestra did impress. The end of the first movement was towering; the whole audience took a sharp intake of breath and my immediate neighbour could not stem from uttering a well-deserved “Wow!”

 The “Flowers” movement was gentle and joyful with string playing of the utmost delicacy, particularly from the front desks. The Posthorn solo, evoking nostalgic melancholy, was placed high up next to the organ, in a hidden alcove, with ample reverberation: the effect was magical. (I think the hall’s acoustical engineers may have been the same employed at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall). It was faultlessly played, no mean feat: the audience was breathless in their admiration. Then on, thankfully without applause (what is happening at the Proms where applause between movements appears to be becoming de rigueur!) to the third movement, the folksy Scherzo.

Gerhild Romberger, a German alto, was utterly radiant in her rendition of “O Mensch! Gib Acht!”, often looking directly at those in the front rows, and being most expressive with her hands – without going over the top. I do not think I have heard this more beautifully sung. (Romberger was also Mariss Jansons’ choice for his Mahler’s Second last season in Lucerne). The principal oboe and cor anglais impressed with their sliding wails.

 “Bimm Bamm” is always charming, children evoking the sound of bells before the angels enter with a joyful melody. I sang the Bimms and the Bamms in the 1960s at the Festival Hall, in the days when boys’ choirs were plentiful, so I prefer the brighter sound of boy trebles to the girls who predominate in childrens’ choirs nowadays.  I should not quibble: they sang well very well. The angelic chorus of Leipzig ladies were suitably sweet with the clearest of German diction in “Es sungen drei Engel einen süssen Gesang”.

 The final (slow) movement, “what Love tells me” gave the opportunity to the Gewandhaus strings to prove their mettle; they were ardent and rapturous. The movement, from its hushed beginnings, grew in intensity before the final wonderful brass Chorale. All eyes at the end were on the two timpanists who ensured they were absolutely together to hammer out the symphony’s thrilling close.

 The standing ovation will hopefully tempt Gilbert, with one orchestra or another, to return to Lucerne another year. This concert will certainly be a strong contender for my concert of the year.


 John Rhodes

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