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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Concert Review: The Death-Blow

The Philharmonic plays Mahler's Sixth at Carnegie Hall.
A 1907 cartoon depicting Mahler with some unusual
instruments featured in the Sixth Symphony.
The caption translates: "Dear God, now that I've forgotten
the horn, I can write a symphony."

On Wednesday night, Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic brought Gustav Mahler's Sixth Symphony to Carnegie Hall. The composer's darkest creation, the Sixth is a mighty, and ultimately futile struggle against the onslaught of inexorable fate.

Mahler composed the Sixth (nicknamed the Tragische) as the central component of a trio of instrumental symphonies. It contains some of the composer's most compelling martial rhythms, with an opening of chugging cellos and the rat-a-tat-tat of the snare drum. That gives way to a second theme in the violins, thought to depict Mahler's relationship with his wife, Alma.

In the first movement, Mr. Gilbert drove the orchestra forward in a steady march. He drew exceptional clarity from the woodwinds, with strong contributions from the flute, clarinet and English horn. (These details of sound are often missed in a faster performance.) In the warm Carnegie acoustic, these players sounded at their very best, with clear differentiation between sections and sonorous playing from the massed brass players.
The Sixth is unique in that it allows the conductor to choose the order for the second and third movements. (Mahler himself published the work with the Scherzo before the Andante, but later changed his mind and revised the order. According to his widow Alma, he may have changed the order again before his death.) In this performance, Mr. Gilbert played the Andante before the Scherzo, taking time to indulge in the lyric, almost bucolic writing that depicts Mahler's love of life and nature.

The dance movement lurched into its opening, a morbid, minor-key theme that staggers back and forth drunkenly between sections of the orchestra. Mr. Gilbert also slowed down to draw out the themes further, letting the melodies turn on themselves and slither out of the low winds, accompanied by the clicks and taps of strings played pizzicato and col legno. The tempo slowed further for the central Trio section, a nostalgic Viennese waltz that repeatedly shifts meter.

The Sixth is famous for its last movement, a long, determined struggle from the depths of the orchestra to a blazing march. Then, the symphony's hypothetical hero is felled in his tracks by Mahler's most unconventional sound effect: a deep, heavy blow from a giant hammer hitting a heavy wooden box. The orchestra uses a trapezoid-shaped "Mahler box" designed by percussionist Christopher Lamb. The hammer itself is four feet long, and its head is six inches wide.

While the hammer draws much attention, it was the orchestra's journey through the movement that proved more interesting.  Each arc leading up to the hammer blows began with an anguished cry from the heart that gave way to low rumblings on the tuba, contrabassoon and deep strings of the harp. This eventually led to lyric passages (with offstage cowbells) and the determined, driving march from the opening. And then, WHAM! The hammer struck with overpowering force, and the orchestra seemed to stagger under its impact. On the third blow, the themes simply petered out and stopped, literally dead in its tracks.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats