Thursday, 11 September 2014

Prom 73: Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Gilbert - Mahler

Royal Albert Hall

Mahler - Symphony no.3

Gerhild Romberger (mezzo-soprano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Children’s Choir (chorus master: Frank-Steffen Elster)
Ladies of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir (chorus master: Gregor Meyer)
Ladies of the Leipzig Opera Chorus (chorus master: Alessandro Zuppardo)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Alan Gilbert (conductor)

It would be unfair, but one could summarise this concert with the words, ‘Senator, you’re no Leonard Bernstein.’ Unfair, because it would ignore the excellence of the playing and singing from the combined forces of Gerhild Romberger, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Children’s Choir, the ladies of both the Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir and the Leipzig Opera Chorus, and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; but not because it would seriously misrepresent my impressions of Alan Gilbert’s conducting, nor indeed of his remarks in a programme interview. Mahler withstands, indeed rejoices in, a good number of interpretative options, and one should always be one’s guard, lest one reject, Beckmesser-like, something new, simply because it is something new. However, that does not mean that anything goes. The Achilles heel of Gilbert’s performance throughout was his lack of structural understanding, or at least his inability to communicate such understanding in performance. He seemed, indeed, to have taken Bernstein at his word – as opposed to following Bernstein’s excellent practice as a conductor – in the claim cited in that interview: ‘I heard Leonard Bernstein … rehearsing it once and he said: “You know what? Finally, after all these years, I’ve found the answer to this piece. It’s like a nightmare of marches. You shouldn’t try to connect them but just live in the moment.’ Perhaps you can do that once you have internalised the piece sufficiently, but, lack of score notwithstanding, Gilbert’s understanding seemed only superficial. As for his bizarre claim in that interview that there was no Viennese tradition of performing Mahler prior to Bernstein...

The first movement, then, sounded rather like Gilbert heard Bernstein described it, save for the fact that it was not very nightmarish. The Gewandhaus Orchestra played with greatly impressive attack, but seemed encouraged to sound brasher than usual, almost as if it were being asked to ape Gilbert’s – or Bernstein’s – New York Philharmonic. What was entirely lacking here was the formal inevitability – form should be understood in dynamic, not static, terms – one hears or has heard from conductors as different as Abbado, Boulez, Haitink, Horenstein, or indeed Bernstein. (I could have done without the Big Bird-style conducting gestures too; at one stage, I thought Gilbert was about to launch into flight. O for the elegance, the economy of the first three named of alternative conductors!) At least there was, for much of the movement, a strong sense of rhythm, even if its connection with harmony appeared to elude the conductor. That dissipated, however, with some unconvincing rubato and tempo changes later on, signalling instability in very much the wrong sense. Doubtless this will all be lauded as ‘exciting’ in some quarters, but without structural command, the excellence of the orchestral playing could not make a symphony out of what sounded more akin to a very lengthy suite. The rush to the finish, however, well executed by the players, was straightforwardly vulgar – as opposed to harnessing apparent vulgarity to higher ends.

The second movement strayed closer still to Simon Rattle territory (or rather recent Rattle territory). Necessary lilt soon became unduly moulded, variations in tempo excessive. Some material was taken very fast indeed, to the extent that it sounded almost balletic. Mahler as Delibes? A point of view, I suppose, but that is the best that can be said. The third movement veered weirdly between such ‘balletic’ tendencies and imitation Bernstein ‘house of horrors’, which would have been better left for the Seventh Symphony. The problem, really, was that they arose from nowhere, and that the whole movement was more than a little rushed. At least the post-horn solos were played beautifully – as indeed was everything else.

Gerhild Romberger gave an excellent rendition of ‘O Mensch!’ though she sounded very much a mezzo rather than a contralto. Hers was nevertheless a performance of compelling honesty, in which words and music amounted to considerably more than the sum of their parts. Gilbert’s conception, though restrained, I think, in the light of the soloist’s presence, seemed unduly ‘operatic’, missing the essential simplicity, however artful in reality, of this song. The fifth movement opened with as much coughing and shuffling as singing but, once that audience contribution was out of the way, the excellence of singing and playing alike could register. (That said, Romberger’s diction was noticeably less good here.) It was taken quickly, but at least it was not unduly pulled around.

Finally, the great Adagio - well, strictly speaking, Langsam - which came off surprisingly well. At least some of the time, it appeared to speak ‘for itself’. The Leipzig strings were wonderfully warm in tone, with the necessary depth to let Mahler’s harmony tell. Although it was not always as rhythmically solid as it might have been, the performance was a definite improvement upon most of what had gone before. And the sound of this great orchestra remained a wonder in itself.




Philologus said...

Thanks for sharing your views but I suspect they are wrong. I was at the same concert and found the arch of interpretation to be as valid as the 'greats' Please try not to mistake fame for precedent.

Derek Castle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Derek Castle said...

A pity Chailly wasn't conducting. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, even the Lennie-like super Langsaaam of the final movement. A joy, more than anything, to hear such refined playing.

Graham Salisbury said...

Yes, I was there too.

Here we have a typical review which is full of utterly pretentious nonsense that alienates a large section of the population. Far from encouraging the uninitiated to participate in (actually, the most appropriate word is "enjoy") such performances, it portrays classical music as something that can only be REALLY understood by the inner circle of the cognoscenti with access to The Hidden Knowledge.

Mark Berry said...

Please feel free to disagree all you like, especially if you give reasons for doing so. However, simply to dismiss as 'utterly pretentious nonsense' something you appear not to understand merely makes you look silly and philistine. As for a 'large section of the population' being alienated, I doubt that anything but a very small section has any interest one way or another in the structure of a Mahler symphony, much as I might wish things to be otherwise.

John said...

I must say I think your comments were spot on. I sat in the concert, feeling that Gilbert was conducting the first movement bar by bar, without any sense of shape. I think that is partly Mahler's fault, but I well remember how brilliantly Abbado showed it can be done.

The performance was, in my view, rescued by the wonderful singing of Gerhild Romberger, and the final movement was outstanding.

All in all, it was a reminder that Mahler's Third is a really tough piece to bring off.