Review: NY Philharmonic Opens Its Season With Mahler and Glass Under the Sure Baton of Van Zweden
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, September 25, 2017
The New York Philharmonic opened its new season last week with a double-watershed: first, Jaap van Zweden made his first full-tilt ceremonial appearance as the orchestra’s Music Director Designate, playing a piece written by one of his predecessors and firmly identified with at least four others; and second, he righted a longstanding wrong by programming a piece by Philip Glass, who—like it or not—embodies, if he did not invent single-handedly, the dominant musical sound of the last half-century. If the result was not bliss pure and simple, it came close enough, and a whole host of lovely gestures was made in the process.
Glass’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (2015, revised 2016) received its New York premiere, featuring the Labèque sisters, for whom it was written. It’s an attractive and absorbing piece, with more event than you might expect, and far more in the way of external reference than Glass usually gives away: I felt the Ravel G-major concerto whispering behind the second movement, and the slow wind-down of the opening movement distinctly evokes Shostakovich, whom Glass greatly admires. The Labèques played it with absolute commitment and beauty of tone, and van Zweden conducted with real feeling, so that it came over with moment-by-moment inflections that often go missing in more poker-faced specialist readings. There’s a nice video of the whole piece, with the same principals, here. Stick with it: that pops-stopper opening is by no means characteristic.
Mahler’s strange, teeming Fifth Symphony may have lost its capacity to shock, now that it’s become a calling-card of choice for every hot young conductor with a recording-contract. You might certainly have drawn that conclusion Saturday night, when the Geffen Hall Chapter of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Coughing gaveled itself to order on the final note of the opening funeral-march, and then when a couple of patrons got so primed to celebrate that their “Bravo!” fractionally preceded the last note of the piece.
Still, van Zweden is better than just about anybody in the business at holding this kind of thing together and making all of Mahler’s sudden shifts and turns seems organic and coherent, clarifying, keeping in balance, and finally driving home what Ernst Krenek called the “curiously ruthless contrapuntal technique” Mahler pursued in this piece. All the individual components in the final triple fugue, for example, were cleanly differentiated, the episodes beautifully demarcated, and all the thematic and contrapuntal relationships gradually revealed and intensified, so that, for once, the movement didn’t seem the least bit too long, and the final chorale felt like the glorious fulfillment of the entire work’s implied potential, not just a big blast at the end.
This was enormously satisfying, and it promises great things for the future. If it wasn’t entirely thrilling, it’s probably because van Zweden, like virtually everyone who’s conducted the Fifth since Mahler’s friend Bruno Walter, emphasizes its tragic elements over what Walter saw as its fundamental “buoyancy,” and broadens tempi accordingly. Walter did the whole piece in an hour, closely approximating timings laid down by Mahler himself or by his most trusted interpreter, while van Zweden takes an additional ten minutes or so, fairly evenly distributed over the five movements. The principal effects of this are to deprive the opening funeral-march of its palpably realistic walking-rhythm—an unsettling, but ultimately deeply touching, documentary touch that gives the movement what Walter called its “singular tragi-ironic meaning”—and to inflate the temporal and emotional dimensions of the little Adagietto beyond the finale’s capacity to counterbalance them. In performances as accomplished and as beautifully managed as van Zweden’s, these may be subtle losses, but they are losses nonetheless. Still, van Zweden is exquisitely respectful and proportionate by comparison with, say, Bernstein, who by the end of his career was adding fifteen minutes to the piece, and Haitink, who adds eighteen minutes overall and doubles Mahler’s time in the Adagietto.
Walter’s 1947 recording with the Philharmonic—the first complete recording ever issued—is a startling document, in the best sense of the word, and one that anyone who cares for Mahler needs to know. As a contemporaneous program reproduced in the Philharmonic’s invaluable Leon Levy Digital Archives shows (click here and look at page 10), Walter’s supposedly “fast” tempi were not ratcheted up to squeeze the piece onto 78-rpm sides; they were what he did, along with generous pauses to separate Mahler’s division of the work into three large sections.
The orchestra—today’s Philharmonic, that is, even though the 1947 crowd was nothing to sneeze at, especially when they launch into that astounding mandolin-like pizzicato thing in the scherzo—played beautifully, all the way up and down the line. After the recent, sudden departure of the Philharmonic’s longtime principal horn, it wouldn’t have been unusual to bring in a star player from outside to handle this famously challenging part, but instead van Zweden went with the home-team, and acting principal Richard Deane filled the bill admirably, especially where he was most exposed, in the all-important scherzo. I suspect Deane’s got more poetry in him than appeared on this pass, but his commanding approach was the right one for van Zweden’s overall conception. The wind-band was glorious, and Anthony McGill, the principal clarinetist, seemed to be having the time of his life. Christopher Martin’s trumpet was magnificent in every way, doing almost as much as van Zweden in shaping and pointing the whole titanic apparatus.
So: good, good, good, good, good. As the immortal Dr. Spielvogel put it, “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”
New York Philharmonic in concert at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, September 22 and 23, 2017 (attended September 23). Jaap van Zweden, Music Director Designate and Conductor; Katia and Marielle Labèque, pianos.
GLASS Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (New York premiere)
MAHLER Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor
Cover: Jaap van Zweden conducting the New York Philharmonic; photo: Chris Lee.