The New York Philharmonic has done a lot of throat-clearing this month. Before regular activities for 2011-12 could begin, the orchestra accompanied a screening of West Side Story, offered a concert in commemoration of 9/11, backed up Andrea Bocelli for the masses in Central Park, and surveyed Walton’s music for Henry V. Alan Gilbert presided over the official opening of the season, a gala one-night stand with soprano Deborah Voigt as soloist and TV cameras documenting every hemidemisemiquaver.
Finally,at this performance, everyone got down to business as usual with the first subscription programme. It was glorious business.
The challenge at hand entailed the stupendous sprawl of the Mahler Second, aka the “Resurrection” Symphony. Although it lasts about 85 minutes, it goes on forever with some conductors. Gilbert, thank goodness – and smartness – is not one of them.
He knows how to give Mahler his rhetorical due without exaggeration or distortion. He understands the value of understatement – everything being relative – yet keeps the expressive indulgences in focus. Eliciting virtuosic precision and propulsion from his orchestra, he mustered massive dynamic contrasts. He gauged the cumulative climaxes with careful bravado. He savoured Mahler’s cataclysmic outbursts, whimsical digressions, introspective interludes and reverential resolutions; still, he avoided lingering over minutiae, kept the line taut, the attacks sharp, the nuances subtle and the pauses tense.
The Philharmonic has long been a Mahler orchestra. During a previous incarnation it played the US premiere of this symphony in 1908, with the composer himself on the podium. Leonard Bernstein was responsible for the great Mahler revival during the 1960s. It would be difficult, however, to find many traces of Bernstein’s heroic indulgence in Gilbert’s more objective approach. Both conductors exult in Mahler’s blood, yet Gilbert does so with less sweat and fewer tears.
Lilli Paasikivi’s earthy mezzo-soprano and Miah Persson’s ethereal soprano added poignant illumination to final movement, and the wondrous New York Choral Artists, trained by Joseph Flummerfelt, reinforced the lofty rhetoric. The ending was worthy of the beginning.