Mahler: Symphony no.3 — Prom 73

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 asAbbado,
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.

Mark Berry

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). Royal Albert Hall, London, Thursday 11 September 2014.

image_description=Gustav Mahler
product_title=Mahler: Symphony no.3 — Prom 73
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Gustav Mahler