Bychkov, Philharmonic create a dark magic with Mahler’s Sixth

Fri Feb 12, 2016 at 1:31 pm
Semyon Bychkov conducted the New York Philharmonic in Mahler's Symphony No. 6 Thursday night. File photo: Chris Christodoulou

Semyon Bychkov conducted the New York Philharmonic in Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 Thursday night. File photo: Chris Christodoulou

Gustav Mahler is embodied and present in his symphonies both in their large-scale design and in the details. The fundamental measure of a Mahler performance is how much Mahler is alive, how much it feels as if one is experiencing the man himself.

By that measure, the New York Philharmonic’s performance of the Symphony No. 6 under guest conductor Semyon Bychkov Thursday night at David Geffen Hall was not at first a success. But there was a moment, fairly called magical, when the music came alive. And from there, the performance transcended the notes on the page, and collapsed the distance between musicians, composer, and audience.

The beginning was not bad by any means; in fact; it was largely admirable. Bychkov chose a solid and sane tempo for the Allegro–just under a quick march. He and the orchestra had a handle on the details: the tiny rests before the ultimate note in a phrase, designed to set up a specific attack; the balance and blend of passages handed off between instrumental groups and individual solos.

Yet there is vastly more to the music of Mahler  than just a flow of structured notes and rhythms. The deep personal feelings, the sense of the complexity of the man’s thoughts, was initially missing. As example, the start of the “Alma” theme begs for a tempo for the strings that is separate from that of the larger orchestra, but Bychkov passed up that opportunity.

But then came the cowbells. They rattle behind a slow chorale roughly in the middle of the first movement; what are they, and what do they mean? This is a nature sound from Mahler’s world. Hiking in the mountains, as Mahler did every summer, one can hear them clearly from unseen herds in far off valleys.

In most performances, the cowbells are a rattling oddity, a color in the score that conductors don’t understand, so they place it at the top of the orchestral texture. With no sense of distance, it is an effect without effect.

Bychkov put them offstage for the first (and last) movement, adn they not only had an evocative lontano quality, but sounded like the natural world, perfectly blended with the music. It was an effect with musical purpose and essential psychological meaning, a part of the composer’s memory.

With this sound from both the distance and the past, the spirit of Mahler filled the music. The playing was already superb, and with Mahler present, the performance became astonishing.

The musicianship was outstanding–refined, powerful, sensitive. Section playing was gorgeous, especially the woodwinds, and individual statements were played with great care for sound and phrasing, and enormous feeling. Particularly stellar were the orchestra’s new concertmaster Frank Huang (who continues to impress), timpanist Markus Rhoten—his thwacks of fate in the final movement were scintillatingly violent—and bass clarinetist Dean LeBlanc, whose solo in front of the cowbells in the first movement was exquisitely placed.

Of course, great credit must be given to Bychkov too. With a minimum of gestures, he did much more than direct the nearly chaotic traffic: his modulations of tempo and dynamics were ideal and made to sound subtle and organic.

Bychkov choose the original sequence of movements, with the Scherzo second. This configuration plays up both the classical era origins of the symphony and the extreme point where Mahler pushed the form. The conductor was masterful in the ebb and flow of tension throughout the symphony, especially in the long final movement, which was completely gripping.

Beside the judicious placement of the cowbells, his approach was transparent, to let the music speak for itself without fuss. He held back any dramatic portamento until the spine-tingling upward octave slide in the Andante, and that movement built to an overwhelming expression.

Bychkov shaped a fantastic, idiomatic, Mahler sound: bright, heavy, slightly sour, full of details. The counterpoint and antiphony between first and second violins was clear, even with the sections adjacent. For the brass and woodwind chorale at the start of the final movement, the orchestral sound was luscious and Wagnerian. The amazing, crackling tritone just before the end of the first movement was a great Mahler moment: simultaneously comforting, self-wounding, exhilarating, unsetting—a point of rest and explosion.

The New York Philharmonic plays Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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