Bychkov and Concertgebouw deliver deep and memorable Mahler

Thu Dec 01, 2016 at 12:04 pm
Semyon Bychkov conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center. Photo: Musacchio Ianniello

Semyon Bychkov conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. File photo: Musacchio Ianniello

The New York Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra share two of the longest and most important traditions of performing Gustav Mahler’s symphonies. And in 2016 New York audiences have had the opportunity to hear what each group brings to the music under conductor Semyon Bychkov, an experience that has refreshed and reinforced Mahler’s greatness.

In February, Bychkov led the Philharmonic in an intense, powerful performance of Symphony No. 6. On Wednesday night, he was in front of the RCO at Carnegie Hall, for an equally profound and dazzling performance of Symphony No. 5.

Where the New Yorkers play Mahler with a brittle, neurotic vivacity that seems to reflect Mahler himself, the Dutch orchestra seems to come out of the towns, cities, and mountains that comprised Mahler’s personal geography.

The RCO has a sound that places a wide variety of colors–including grainy strings and a megawatt-bright horn section–under a soft patina. It is a mixture of old and new; the opening solo trumpet fanfare was dark in a way not heard with American orchestra, but the rest of the brass and the woodwinds had a sonic brilliance familiar from most contemporary orchestras.

The blend of sounds was exceptional in the performance. Mahler frequently combined bassoon and low strings, then morphed that with a touch of brass or other winds. With most orchestras, the sonority is thicker, whereas with the RCO the different instruments sound like independent voices gathered around the same phrase, enhancing the psychological complexity of Mahler’s scoring.

Starting from the somber tread of the first section’s funeral march, the performance came from a very deep place. Tempos were consistently slightly slower than normally heard, although the Adagietto was, refreshingly, faster than the currently predominant fashion. As wild and savage as the playing got at times, there was nothing histrionic or sentimental about the interpretation—the wildness and savagery had an exhilarating, blunt impact.

The melancholy of the funereal tread was genuine, as if the musicians were marching through the same rain that fell outside Wednesday night.The first violin phrase was played without vibrato, making a simple and powerful statement of despair. In the continuing second section of the first movement, the cellos’ haunting melody was played with a matter-of-fact understatement that produced achingly gorgeous music.

Bychkov’s deliberate pace allowed for the accumulation of emotional effect. A pause between the sections of the first movement dissipated some feeling, and there was some abominably distracting audience behavior, both careless —a butt-dialed modem line during the quiet timpani solo in the first movement—and thoughtless—people clanking the doors while leaving during the performance, including during the Adagietto. But the playing always returned attention back to Mahler.

As in February, Bychkov guided the music without intervening in the score’s details—the musicians gave everything to Mahler’s instructions. With the attacca start of the finale came the payoff, a real and glorious sense that after the stormy previous minutes, the sun was rising on a peaceful dawn. The grand chord that announces the emotional fulfillment of the symphony was understated, a brilliant and logical punctuation point.

The Mahler symphony was preceded by the New York premiere of Detlev Glanert’s Theatrum bestiarum, Songs and Dances for Large Orchestra. Contemporary music invariably pairs well with Mahler (Glanert’s piece dates from 2004–05), and because Mahler can be so wild and formally expansive, he makes contemporary works sound neat, even staid.

Theatrum bestiarum was not staid, but it was absolutely neat in the sense that it was well-made. Glanert’s craft combines sonic power with detailed orchestral refinement, and the music made the most of the possibilities of the large orchestra, while also opening windows into moments of arresting intimacy.

The piece was narrative drama, related to Glanert’s opera Caligula and described by the composer as “a zoo of human beings … I look at people as animals because sometimes they behave as animals.” And Theatrum did come across as a safari, and an attractive one.

After a huge 25-note chord opened the piece, there was a constant flow or colorful, characterful music. First up was a halting line for contrabassoon and low strings that seemed to stalk the music and drew in the listener. A vivacious opening section was followed by a marvelous, dreamlike interlude that was book-ended by an organ solo. The strongest dance feel was in the third, final section of this one-movement work.

Filled with intriguing backward glances at William Walton’s Symphony No. 2, the first hearing of Theatrum was an involving and fulfilling experience. It’s depiction of animal nature was full of imagination, even if the sense of wildness had to wait for Mahler in the second half.

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