Above: Alan Gilbert
Saturday March 4th, 2017 - On this final evening of a seven-performance marathon for me, The New York Philharmonic paired Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta with the 4th Symphony of Gustav Mahler. Christina Landshamer was the soprano soloist for the Mahler, and Alan Gilbert was on the podium.
Tonight's concert would be very high on my list of favorite symphonic performances I have attended in recent seasons: two spectacular works, the orchestra on peak form with numerous solo opportunities for the players, a lovely (and new-to-me) soprano, and Maestro Gilbert very much in his element.
The Bartók is a sonic dazzler which calls for an unusual configuration of the musicians in what are, in effect, two orchestras mirroring one another. Thus concertmaster Frank Huang can look across the podium as his Principal Associate, Sheryl Staples, and the eight basses are arrayed four facing four. The percussionists are kept busy as demons: they made the piece snap, crackle, and pop.
Brilliantly orchestrated, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta includes folk-like tunes and dance rhythms, but these are employed to dramatic rather than nostalgic effect. The first movement begins in a misterioso mood, with restrained piano and soft percussion; things soon turn ominously grander. The music subsides, with the strings taking up a chromatic theme that snakes to a fading end.
The piano sets off on a march-like passage in the second movement, marked Allegro molto, which become quite turbulent; sharply accented piano mixes with the xylophone. After a bit of delicate plucking from the violins, there's a swirling fugue, and deliberate drum strokes vanish in a whimsical interlude. The pace accelerates to a dramatic finish.
The Adagio, sometimes referred to as Bartók's "night music", begins with a clinking xylophone note. Nocturnal mystery is evoke, with unsettling, sliding strings and a high violin passage backed by celesta. An eerie dream is evoked by quirky flourishes from the celesta, and an urgent interlude surrenders to more creepy, suspenseful music.
The final Allegro molto brings a complete change of mood: exhilarating, with touches of wit. The tempo speeds up, as if in a race to the finish line, but then turns somber - almost hymn-like - before re-bounding to a flashing finish. This is music that cries out to be choreographed, and in fact I am sending it to some of my favorite dance-makers.
The Philharmonic's performance of this Bartók masterpiece tonight was a revelation: they played with spectacular clarity and colour, and I very much enjoyed watching Alan Gilbert on the podium.
Above: soprano Christina Landshamer; photo by Marci Borrgreve
Mahler's 4th was the first symphony I fell in love with - specifically the Szell recording with Judith Raskin as soloist. Under Alan Gilbert's baton, tonight's performance, luxuriantly played, amplified all the reasons why the 4th has remained numero uno for me over the years.
Throughout the performance, individual stars of the NY Philharmonic piped up in vivid featured phrases, showing us yet again the 'soloist quality' of the players in this great ensemble. Philip Myers' horn sounded glorious all evening, and among the winds, Robert Langevin (flute), Anthony McGill (clarinet), Sherry Sylar (oboe), and Judith LeClair (bassoon) played with radiance. I could not see the trumpet soloist, but...brilliant! Frank Huang was featured prominently, and his neighbor Sheryl Staples also had a solo passage, as did one of the women further down the row who I could not quite see but who sounded so lovely.
Alan Gilbert crafted this music with obvious affection; in the third movement, especially, all seemed wonderfully right with the world. Ms. Sylar made an outstanding impression here, the horns were lustrous, Mr. Huang played with great feeling, the violins singing in unison had a gorgeous sheen to their sound, and let's not forget Cynthia Phelps, Carter Brey, and Timothy Cobb and their viola, cello, and bass colleagues.
Christina Landshamer, in a striking deep-aqua gown, entered quietly just before Alan Gilbert set the symphony's final movement in motion. With a lyric soprano of appealing timbre, the soprano made an especially lovely effect by employing straight-tone on the song's iconic phrase “Sanct Peter im Himmel sieht zu”, and again at "Die Englein, die backen das Brot". This is a singer I would love to hear in a lieder recital.
Mahler's 4th ends rather abruptly: the music simply stops, without any kind of 'finale'. It's a wonderful piece to experience live, especially in a performance of such opulence as we heard tonight. Bravo! to Alan Gilbert, and kudos to all the musicians for giving us a marvelous musical experience.