At the end of last week Leonard Bernstein’s old orchestra came to London and played Mahler. Yes, yes, the New York Philharmonic is no more Bernstein’s today than it is Mahler’s, but orchestras have traditions and the Philharmonic did have an intense relationship with both composer-conductors. So the programming of the Ninth Symphony, on its own, for the opening concert of a three-day Barbican residency had a certain resonance – until the moment the orchestra starting playing those soft opening bars. Then the resonance vanished. The sound was a mixture of bright and dry, the phrasing almost defiantly matter-of-fact. Whatever reasons this orchestra had for choosing Alan Gilbert as its music director, it was not because he is a charismatic Mahlerian.
Gilbert has widened the Philharmonic’s repertoire, as the inclusion of works by Adès and Lindberg on its latest European tour demonstrated. He has also updated its style, judging by the variety of educational events that preceded each Barbican concert. Its personnel still numbers plenty of survivors from Kurt Masur’s tenure – notably the ever-impressive principal horn, Philip Myers, and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow – but this Mahler performance advertised an ensemble rebranded in Gilbert’s image: articulate, as the solos in the chamber concerto-like close to the opening Andante underlined; proficient, or so its deadpan management of the Rondo-Burleske suggested; and completely lacking in “soul”, the very quality one looks for in a work riddled with the conflicts and contrasts between life and death, devilish laughter and sweet sorrow.
Gilbert is evidently a conscientious musician, but this symphony demands much, much more: I found myself almost wishing he might, just once, milk the music for its emotion, like a Mahler charlatan, rather than beat time with animated gestures that expressed nothing. In Gilbert’s hands the music came across like a sequence of inanimate blocks rather than a spontaneous outpouring of heartbreak, so that the long string lines of the finale ended up sounding rather limp.
Maybe Gilbert should have spent more time honing his Mahler with the likes of the Milwaukee Symphony. Maybe he just needs to loosen up. This performance barely broke a sweat.