Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic on Distinguished Form at the Barbican

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bartók and Mahler: Christina Landshamer (soprano), New York Philharmonic Orchestra / Alan Gilbert (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 31.3.2017. (JPr)

Alan Gilbert, Christina Landshamer and the New York Philharmonic (c) Chris Lee

Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

Mahler – Symphony No.4

The Queen’s Hall on 14th June 1920 was the first time the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performed in London, and beginning with Dimitri Mitropoulos – midway through last century – all subsequent music directors have brought the orchestra to London. In his final season their current music director, Alan Gilbert, is leading his orchestra on a two-week tour to Europe. They are America’s oldest orchestra and are currently celebrating their 175th anniversary. This will be Gilbert’s ninth and final international tour as music director – the seventh with him to Europe – and there are fourteen concerts in seven countries. Incidentally, on their extensive first European tour in 1920 – almost two months rather than two weeks – the New York Philharmonic performed in Antwerp and visiting there recently marked the orchestra’s first return in 97 years!

Sadly, for this first concert of their current short residency at the Barbican there were just too many empty seats for it not to cause some worry about whether – possibly because of anno domine – the audience is shrinking for the amount of classical music that there is available in London. This follows a recent concert with the Royal Concertgebouw I reviewed that was also less-than-full, and the night before this New York Philharmonic’s concert the London Symphony Orchestra had programmed another Mahler symphony, with another one to follow at the Barbican within a week.

The fact that the New York Philharmonic brings Mahler to London should always be a special occasion, because it is well-known how after becoming its principal conductor in 1909 the composer helped reinvigorate the orchestra. In his all-too-brief time with them Mahler explored the canon of symphonic music, programming many works he had never conducted before, as well as, introducing audiences to his own compositions.

Mahler of course never lived long enough to know Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, though Bartók certainly knew Mahler’s music. It was commissioned by the conductor, Paul Sacher, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Basle Chamber Orchestra, who gave the work’s first performance in 1937. The title of the work is rather misleading, as the celesta is not heard much more often than any of the related instruments such as piano, harp, xylophone and timpani. Also significant is that the strings are divided into two groups on opposite sides of the platform. The piece’s four movements each have a distinct flavour. Both in the spectral and mysterious opening fugue (Andante tranquillo) which inexorably builds to a climax before subsiding and – punctuated by the harp and celesta – in the dream-like, serene, moonlit Adagio there are hints of the Nachtmusiks from Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. The spirited, dance-like, Allegro molto which concludes the piece has a little of the klezmer and ländler we are also familiar with from Mahler. Between the Andante tranquillo and the Adagio is the scherzo which with its syncopated piano and percussion as well as extended pizzicati section is sufficiently jazz-like at times to have clearly stuck in the memory of Leonard Bernstein when he conducted it. It is impossible not to hear the influence this had on his score for West Side Story. There was much joyous abandon in the finale which summed up an excellent performance from Alan Gilbert and his exceptional musicians which was more otherworldly and spirited than dark and grim.

The Fourth Symphony remains one of Mahler’s most accessible works. May I remind you that for him composing was his pastime when on summer vacation because his day job – since he was in debt most of his life – was conducting. Like many of us it was a case of ‘I owe, I owe, and it’s off to work I go!’ Three movements were drafted in 1899 and the song ‘Das himmlische Leben’ – a child’s vision of heaven left out of the Third Symphony – was used to complete it in 1901: there are anticipatory quotations of it during the rest of the music. Mahler wonderfully combines this child’s song – along with other folk tunes, klezmer music, waltzes and marches – into an essentially innocent composition. Yet the premiere in 1901 caused a scandal and a 1904 New York concert was apparently greeted as a ‘drooling and emasculated musical monstrosity, … the most painful musical torture to which [the critic] has been compelled to submit.’

Bruno Walter was Mahler’s assistant conductor and foremost protégé and I am led to believe his interpretation of the Fourth Symphony was – compared to some before and since – something deeply humanistic and without exaggeration. Shortly after the Second World War he was music advisor to the New York Philharmonic and in his writings about Mahler described the symphony as dreamlike and a fairy-tale. Another of the orchestra’s music directors was Lorin Maazel (2002-2009) and Alan Gilbert seems – like him (review here) – to see Mahler’s Fourth Symphony as an untroubled work, simply concentrating on the symphony’s cosy (gemütlich) nature, and I am happy with that.

Shortly after completing this symphony Mahler renounced the idea of programme music. Here the episodic first movement was originally titled ‘Die Welt als ewige Jetztzeit’ (The World as Eternal Now), which from its jog-trotting sleigh bells onwards is supposed to be about a soul’s innocent joy. Gilbert never rushed and there was particular clarity from the winds and strings. The following scherzo showcased the concertmaster Frank Huang and his second instrument with its scordatura tuning (a tone higher than normal) which created a demonic sound as ‘Freund Hein spielt zum Tanz auf’ (Friend Death is Striking Up the Dance). Death’s fiddle-playing is leading those who hear it Pied Piper-like onwards in a dance of death. The third movement marked ‘Restful’ features ‘Sankt Ursula selbst dazu lacht’ (St Ursula Stands by Laughing) and is one of Mahler’s loveliest; there is some tranquil repose. It nevertheless builds to a joyous E major outburst (and at this point the soprano entered) before dying away again at the end. Mahler suggested that this movement – an adagio set of variations built upon two contrasting yet related themes – was inspired by his memories of his mother’s sad face, who in spite of considerable suffering, was constantly loving and pardoning. Quite clearly Gilbert and his musicians had brought us to the gates of paradise, as at the climax the violins’ closing lines drift heavenwards.

Christina Landshamer was as good as any I have heard in this final movement and sang ‘Das himmlische Leben’ with a clarity and purity that was ideal for the song’s childlike text. She was on the other side of the orchestra from where I was sitting and that might explain why although I heard some beautiful sounds, I could not make out many words. After a suitably angelic final stanza, as we hear about St Cecilia (the patron saint of music), her wonderful musicians and the voices of the angels; the final words are ‘Das alles für Freuden erwacht’ (So all things wake to joy). Indeed, from Gilbert and his own ‘wonderful musicians’ the ending was something truly magical culminating in a low ppp E in the double basses and the soft tolling of the harp to end the symphony. So affecting was this that there was a suitable silence before the thunderous applause began. It was probably only the blissful nature of the ending of the symphony which kept most of the audience sitting rather than bringing them to their feet.

Jim Pritchard

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