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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Concert Review: Two Bridges to Nowhere

Alan Gilbert conducts Mahler and Sibelius.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Mahler man: Alan Gilbert (left, back to camera) leads Thomas Hampson (standing)
and members of the  New York Philharmonic (seated) in Das Lied von der Erde.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2016 The New York Philharmonic.

The last stages of a composer's output often contain their most profound utterances. Mozart's Zauberflöte, Beethoven's string quartets and Wagner's Parsifal are all notable examples. Last week, the New York Philharmonic offered a program exploring the penultimate completed works of Jean Sibelius and Gustav Mahler, two composers whose careers ended early, albeit for very different reasons. The concert marked the return of Alan Gilbert to the New York Philharmonic podium after an absence of some weeks. Friday morning was the last of three concerts featuring Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 paired with the work that almost became Mahler's Ninth: the six-movement song cycle Das Lied von der Erde.

Sibelius' Seventh dates from 1924. Originally titled Fantasia sinfonica, it is a unique work, bridging the mysterious chasm between the four-movement symphony and the tone poem by compressing all of its movement shifts into a single twenty-two minute span. It is a wondrous journey to take, if only because listeners never discovered what was on the other side of Sibelius' bridge. In 1929, he stopped publishing music. This was the "long silence" that hung over the last 28 years of his life.

Mr. Gilbert opened Friday's morning performance with the slow, ascending figure in the cellos and basses that leads off the Seventh. This is the start of a long slow section that swells, evolves and changes, with themes handed off among the woodwinds before a swelling, heroic chorale bursts forth in the trombones. This is an important theme that recurs throughout the work. Mr. Gilbert led orchestra and listeners into the tricky second half, with thirteen rapid shifts in tempo before a final return to the slow rhythm and another peal of brass.

Mahler started Das Lied von der Erde as a planned ninth symphony, but (according to his widow Alma) he changed the title of this set of six adaptations of Chinese poetry to The Song of the Earth out of a desire to cheat the ill fate of other composers who (since Haydn) had finished or attempted to finish their Ninth. A year later, he wrote his Ninth and then died shortly afterward while working on the Tenth. (He did not live to hear any of these late works performed.)

The opening bars of "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde", showed the evolution of Mr. Gilbert's style in leading Mahler's symphonies. Over a surge of orchestration, heldentenor Stefan Vinke (who made his debut with the orchestra with these concerts) poured out the emotion of this poem, a translation into German of a Chinese text by the poet Li Bai. Mr. Vinke battled the surge of orchestration with a powerful technique and a tone that sliced cleanly through the heavy forest of orchestration. And yet, Mr. Gilbert kept taut control on these powerful forces, giving this ungainly first movement a sense of grace that can sometimes be elusive.

The second movement featured the second soloist, baritone Thomas Hampson. It is not usual for this work to be performed by the pairing of tenor and baritone, but Mahler himself suggested this as an alternative if an alto was not available. Mr. Hampson brought his dry, slightly woody tone to "The Lonely One in Autumn," singing with precise control as the orchestra unrolled a gleaming carpet of finely woven notes that fell like leaves in the forest. Delicacy and grace entered the middle movements "Of Youth" and "Of Beauty", with finely pointed solos in the woodwinds contrasting with Mr. Vinke and Mr. Hampson's utterances.

"The Drunkard in Spring" functions as a sort of scherzo, with an opening horn call launching this quick-footed movement. Mr. Vinke showed the agility of his voice, singing in a soft register that brought out more of the fine colors in his instrument. The final movement "Der Abscheid" belonged to Mr. Hampson. It is the longest movement here, opening with a sort of death-knell in the lowest woodwind instruments. The voice enters hesitantly, in a recitative that grows with power and confidence as the long-spinning melodies evolved. Here, in the music of deepest yearnings, Mr. Gilbert showed his mettle as a Mahlerian, supporting Mr. Hampson in this long and autumnal movement. As the singer approached the last lines, added by the composer himself, conductor and orchestra provided blissful accompaniment. 

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