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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Concert Review: Hammer of the Gods

Semyon Bychkov conducts Mahler's Sixth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Mahler Sixth meets its maker at the New York Philharmonic.
L.-R. Kyle Zerna (with gong) Daniel Druckman (with hammer), Markus Rhoten (with timpani mallets)
and Christopher Lamb with cymbals. Photo by Chris Lee © 2016 The New York Philharmonic.
When the New York Philharmonic plays the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, it is always a meaningful experience. On Tuesday night, the orchestra that that Mahler himself once led gave the fourth and final performance this season of the composer's Symphony No. 6 in A minor at Avery Fisher Hall. Lasting an hour and a half and requiring enormous orchestral forces, this symphony stands out among the composer's works for its relentless, military character and dark ending, in which the music's quest to escape its dark home key is (quite literally) stopped in its tracks.

These performances were led by Semyon Bychkov, the Russian conductor who has always flown just a little bit under the level of the elite superstar conductors that regularly step before the world's greatest orchestras. At this performance, Mr. Bychkov chose a version of the score that eliminated some of the original percussive decorations but kept the original order of movements, placing the Scherzo second and the moving Andante third before the famous finale.

He stepped briskly to the podium and launched the opening theme with the chugging determination of a locomotive picking up steam. Low strings and woodwinds were interrupted by interjections from the timpani and trumpets that introduced a key fate theme that would prove central to the later movements. The strings too offered discourse, a passionate second subject that (it is said) may have represented Mahler's wife Alma. This was a powerful, muscular performance of the opening movement, preserving the momentum of the main theme but indulging in developmental excursions and summoning mysterious, almost mystic chords from the depths of the vastly expanded winds.

The Scherzo (played second here in concordance with the composer's original design) features a contrast of ideas, between a unsettling theme accentuated with the rattle of the xylophone and a downward, slashing chorale theme that recalls the third movement of the Brahms Fourth. This yields to a slow, lilting set of trio passages evoking children at play before Mahler returns to the spook-house material in the movement's close.

Mr. Bychkov summoned noble, rich tones from the cellos and violas for the singing Andante, slowing the movement and emphasizing the lyric quality, a place of serene triumph following the battles of the first two movements. A noble solo from horn Philip Myers led the orchestra into a higher, almost celestial plane, a sunrise in the middle of this dark symphony. The clouds rolled back in as the music gently returned to earth. Mr. Bychkov piloted the theme to a soft landing, a moment of serenity before Mahler let all hell break loose.

Marked Sostenuto--Allegro moderato--Allegro energico the finale of the Sixth is one of Mahler's marathon movements, lasting more than half an hour. It reworks the "fate" rhythm from the earlier movements into a huge construct, (sort of like a rondo with very long thematic statements) that gradually picks up momentum as it marches forward. But unlike any other Mahler symphony, the close of the Sixth is about meeting fate rather than overcoming it. That fate is symbolized by a percussive instrument: a gigantic wooden hammer that stops the whole orchestra with a mighty thud, the sound of an angry percussion-addicted god striking down a mythological hero.

Mahler adds more exotic percussion too: great bells (here a suspended orchestral chime) cowbells (played offstage) and the rute, adding color to the surging thematic ideas that ebbed and flowed like the rolling of a great tide. Eventually, the climactic moment was shattered by the landing of the mighty hammer, a chilling moment that resonated like a gunshot in the concert hall. Undeterred, the orchestra picked itself up and resumed, only to be brought to its knees by another crash of the hammer. The third blow (planned by Mahler but later eliminated in a revision) was taken softly--you could see the hammer in Kyle Zerna's hand but you didn't really hear the thump. However its effect was felt as the orchestra staggered, shuddered, uttered one last blast of the fate theme and finally subsided in silence. 

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