Timpani For The Devil
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Conductor/Musical Director)
A.Gilbert (© Chris Lee)
A puzzlement. Despite Gustav Mahler’s close affinity with the New York Philharmonic, it took 40 years between the composition of the Sixth Symphony and its premiere in New York. And for that, it took Dmitri Mitropoulos, a conductor as Titanic as Mahler himself, to offer it.
Why such a gap? Perhaps because the Sixth Symphony, while not the largest in duration or resources, is emotionally the most draining of all Mahler symphonies. The other symphonies have (sometimes grudging) angelic consolations, religious screeds or cheerful birdcalls. The A Minor is desolation from beginning to end. Even those few lighter moments are, at best, sardonic, cynical, and, at their best, painful.
Alan Gilbert left the drier spaces of Avery Fisher Hall (where he plays tonight), for the more resounding and challenging Carnegie Hall, where Mahler himself raised his baton so many years ago. And I have rarely seen Mr. Gilbert so physically excited. Mr. Gilbert usually achieves his great movements with deceivingly circumscribed movements. Here, in parts of the first two movements, he literally launched himself into the orchestra.
Possibly Mr. Gilbert was giving his homage to Mahler, who, according to a witness watching him rehearsing the Sixth, was “sobbing, wringing his hands, unable to control himself.” Mr. Gilbert controlled himself and the Philharmonic Orchestra for a good, even astringent performance.
The performance was dark and torturous, but never ever bathetic. In fact, that first movement, for all the sharp orchestral cutoffs, had a transparent feel. The strings might have pushed the marches and the so-called “Alma” theme (at least that’s what his wife Alma called it!). But Mr. Gilbert emphasized the underlines, the lines of trumpets and trombones which played virtual ostinati to the major themes.
In a few sections, Mr. Gilbert managed to give a medieval almost modal feel to the Symphony, with the lines twisting around themselves in eccentric lines.
The Andante was the one consolation of this inconsolable work. Perhaps without that first movement drive, it started a bit draggy, but those heavenly string chords soon brought it into the empyrean ranges, and a lovely flute solo toward the end gave it all the sensitivity we needed.
The Scherzo (anything but a joke!) tinged on the acerbic, giving inevitable space for that portent of fear and trembling, the innocently named “Allegro moderato.” So many emotions, so many changes of meters and moods, and Mr. Gilbert allowed the moods to play their way to a chord which...which promised nothing except pain.
The New York Philharmonic itself was in pretty fine shape, making accommodations for the more commodious spaces and more resounding sounds of Carnegie Hall. The French horns were less than accurate at times, but Mahler has so much brass that a few slips of the tongue hardly lay waste to the massive battleground which Mahler lays out in this 90-minute paean to tragedy
M. Rhoten (© Chris Lee)
No problems at all, though, with timpanist Marcus Rhoten, who was the foundation for the first and last movement–and who whacked his instrument with fearsome force in the finale. The woman sitting in front of me was literally shaken by the sound, and her partner had to comfort the poor damsel in distress.
I doubt whether Mahler would have cared I know that Mr. Rhoten would have shrugged off the visceral reaction.
As for Maestro Gilbert, he was only trying to show that if all is not right in this most dangerous of all worlds, Mahler still has the most palatable way to present fear and trembling.