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Review: Munich Philharmonic, One of the ‘World’s Great Orchestras,’ in Concert at Carnegie

Munich Philharmonic

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, April 8, 2017

Valery Gergiev is one of today’s most controversial conductors, if the protestors outside Carnegie Hall are any indication, for political reasons as well as his bizarre, fluttery ictus. Recently, he led the formidable Munich Philharmonic in an uneven program of classic symphonic works.

The evening’s most successful reading was of Claude Debussy’s revolutionary Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The warmth of this orchestra’s sound was evident from the richly played solo flute entrance. The delicate textures of Debussy’s orchestration were rendered exquisitely, with careful balance between the sections, and a fine sense of line and build. The ensemble’s keen sense of timbre and resonance, meticulously harnessed in this piece, was sublime.

Although the evening’s main event was to be a Mahler symphony, albeit his shortest, the first half of the program was sagged down with Schubert’s fourth symphony, the “Tragic.” In his program notes for the concert, Jack Sullivan pointed out that the piece was neglected in the composer’s own century, not having been premiered until 21 years after Schubert’s death. This performance, however, seemed workaday and heavy, and did little to persuade of the youthful piece’s vitality, or of its necessity on this program.

Mahler’s fourth symphony, just like its larger cousins, contains a universe. But, here, the size of the orchestra is not Straussian, and rather than a chorus, we are joined only by a soprano soloist, and the mood is largely genial and spring-like. The Münchners played with boundless strength and demonstrable virtuosity.

The violins swooned with admirable flexibility in the first movement’s Mozartian primary theme, and soared in the dramatic portamentos in the third movement. The woodwinds played with distinct character and rhythmic verve in their snappy soli material. But the brass truly shone throughout, harnessing the hall’s acoustics to maximize their meaty sonority in Mahler’s climactic fortissimos.

Only occasionally, as in the languid moments of repose in the slow movement, would there be an intonation disagreement, which — whether for technical or temperamental reasons — would go curiously unresolved. (Such inter-ensemble disputes became more frequent as the evening developed.)

Soprano Genia Kühmeier entered through a stage-left door unexpectedly upon the shattering triple forte E major tutti, as if she had just entered heaven and was taking it in, as the music’s ecstasy slowly unwinds. Luminous and endearingly communicative , Kühmeier possesses a lustrous, creamy instrument. She found in the constant pianissimos of the fourth movement’s “The Heavenly Life” (the text comes from the folk collection “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” that Mahler frequently mined) a childlike radiance, exuding pure joy in the crisp dotted rhythms.

The Munich Philharmonic clearly belongs among the top echelon of the world’s great orchestras, able to produce a deep, mellifluous sound, even if its relationship with their conductor, indeed their conductor himself, seems mysterious.


Munich Philharmonic in concert at Carnegie Hall on April 5, 2017. Valery Gergiev, music director and conductor; Genia Kühmeier, soprano.

DEBUSSY Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
SCHUBERT Symphony No. 4, “Tragic”
MAHLER Symphony No. 4

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Cover: Valery Gergiev conducting the Munich Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall; photo: Steve J. Sherman.


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