Rattle Leads Mahler’s Sixth Symphony: How Great Must a Great Performance Be?

United StatesUnited States Mahler: Philadelphia Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 6.10.2016. (BJ)

Mahler – Symphony No. 6

Sir Simon Rattle is a conductor in whom I have a good deal of what you might call personal commitment invested. In 1974, when at the age of 19 he was the youngest of 70 entrants in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s John Player International Conducting Competition, I was a member of the jury that awarded him the first prize. I have watched with much satisfaction the career that has subsequently taken him to the very top ranks among conductors. The prospect of hearing him conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, with which he made his Berlin Philharmonic debut in 1987, and of which he made a superb recording two years later as the then music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, was enticing indeed.

Given the quality of the Philadelphia musicians and of the conductor on the podium, it was no surprise that there were many wonderful moments to savor in their interpretation. The first movement of this most pervasively tragic of Mahler’s symphonies was set on its course with an unerring sense of destiny. When the work’s composite motto—a stern march rhythm coupled with a pair of chords changing ominously from major to minor—made its appearance a minute or so into the movement, the crispness and clarity of the timpani playing led by Don S. Liuzzi was beyond praise. The strings were their usual sumptuous and stylish selves, and concertmaster David Kim shaped his solos with characteristic elegance and grace. Jeffrey Khaner, Richard Woodhams, and their woodwind colleagues were enchanting in solo and impeccable in ensemble, and similar standards marked also the work of the brass section, percussion, and harps.

It may seem picayune, in the face of such riches, to register just a tad of disappointment. While so many telling details were masterfully brought to the ear, there were passages where such elements were not so much realized as a little vaguely hinted at. Despite the familiar beauty of the orchestra’s sonority, it seemed to me at times too understated in sheer amplitude.

And there was a moment that brought to mind Heinrich Neuhaus’s pithy observation about his greatest pupil, to the effect that Sviatoslav Richter’s rhythm was “at the same time perfectly strict and perfectly free.” The moment came with the launching of the theme of which Alma Mahler recounted: After he had drafted the first movement, [Mahler] came down from the wood to tell me that he had tried to express me in a theme. “Whether I’ve succeeded I don’t know; but you’ll have to put up with it.” This is the great soaring theme of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony. The direction in the score at that point is “Schwungvoll” (“sweeping” or “zestful”) and I felt that “Schwung” was somewhat lacking: As at one or two other points in the work, strictness was winning out over freedom, and lyricism in consequence was shortchanged.

So while this was in most respects a great performance of the symphony, it did not in my view rank among Rattle’s greatest. In the evening of the day on which I am writing, 10 October, he and the Philadelphians will be playing the work again in Carnegie Hall, and I hope that the New York audience may find that it has jelled into the kind of overwhelming experience that he is certainly capable of eliciting from one of the world’s finest orchestras.

Bernard Jacobson

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