What’s the rush?
I’ve been admonished that my reviews are too long, so that’s my summary judgment in one sentence. It’s a tribute to the Philharmonic that they can play this music at such breakneck tempi and still endow the music with weight, power, and shape to the phrasing. And it’s always a pleasure to hear Mahler’s Fifth live. But why so fast?
Things got off to an odd start right at the beginning, when Gilbert insisted on conducting (not just beating) every bar of Phil Smith’s magnificent trumpet solo. And for the rest of the movement–indeed, the rest of the performance–Gilbert kept the orchestra on a very tight leash. In this movement tempos were moderate but surprisingly strict. Gilbert rarely slowed down to let a climax expand, and in the quieter sections, his technique for lending shape to a phrase was to lean on upbeats, then return to a strict tempo, bar-by-bar. This made for some jump cuts in transitions, and a less organic sense of phrasing.
In some ways Gilbert’s unyielding tempos were a blessing in the second movement; many other conductors use wildly different tempi in each section that fail to relate coherently to each other. But again, the music only had a chance to expand in the most obvious climaxes, whereas Mahler himself was said to vary the tempo bar-by-bar (if just a shade). The players did themselves proud, especially the whoops and snarls of the horns (the section had a great night–Phil Myers takes risks and sometimes they result in a few splats, but the playing was wonderfully expressive and almost flawless).
The scherzo is where many performances come to grief, as Mahler himself predicted:
The Scherzo is a damnable movement. It will have a long history of suffering! Conductors will take it too fast for fifty years, and audiences—Oh heavens—what sort of faces will they pull at this chaos…
That was true tonight. Here the tempi were so hurried that the music was almost garbled, and even the Philharmonic strings lost their ensemble or intonation in a few spots. The slower ländler were better, but so many times, Gilbert plowed through at a metronomic tempo when just a little slackening or quickening would have shaped the phrase. As a result, the movement was a rush of frenetic energy, rather than the rustic yet disquieting episode that Mahler had in mind. (For remarkably insightful discussions of this movement, including the quote above, take a look at this post from conductor Kenneth Woods, and the chapters on the Fifth in Donald Mitchell’s Discovering Mahler.)
The Adagietto was something else again–all the flexibility absent from the other movements, at a moderate tempo eschewing the extremes of Bruno Walter’s brevity or Leonard Bernstein’s hypertrophy.
Gilbert cued the horn for the fifth movement right after cutting off the strings at the end of the fourth–almost an attacca, which is right. And here, the dense quasi-fugal textures were more suited to a strict tempo. Yet again, I wished Gilbert would ease off a bit more in lyrical passages. He slammed on the accelerator for the flourish in the final bars, and the audience fairly quickly got on its feet.
With Mahler, Gilbert is perhaps the anti-Bernstein, and even more, the anti-Tennstedt. Eschewing all sentimentality, he prefers strict tempos and appropriately brash sonorities. This can generate plenty of excitement, especially with an orchestra that knows Mahler so well; Gilbert’s performance of the Third Symphony in the 2008-2009 season (available for download) was wonderful. But I think tonight’s performance missed some of the light and shade, some of the more subtle expressive dimensions, and some of the more idiomatic gestures that I prefer in Mahler.
The Philharmonic has been posting live recordings on iTunes and eMusic (there were no less than 16 microphones, arranged to compensate for the truly horrid acoustic of Avery Fisher Hall), so fairly soon I’ll be able to check if these impressions were accurate, or if I need to eat crow on this one.