Van Zweden wraps Philharmonic tenure with a mixed Mahler “Resurrection”

Fri Jun 07, 2024 at 1:43 pm
Jaap van Zweden conducted the New York Philharmonic in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

The brief, pandemic-bedeviled tenure of Jaap van Zweden as music director of the New York Philharmonic is coming to a close this weekend with three performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, commonly referred to (but not by the composer) as his “Resurrection” Symphony.

Van Zweden’s six-year reign at the Philharmonic has produced richly meaningful music-making at times—including as recently as two weeks ago. But an overview reveals many performances that were notable for drive and accuracy and not much else.

As if to summarize this mixed record, Thursday’s traversal of the symphony’s five movements sounded routine for the first four and caught fire only in the heaven-storming choral finale.

By Mahler’s own account, the Second Symphony grew from heterogeneous materials—a funeral ode here, a picturesque song there—leaving the composer stumped for a movement order and an ending. Then, as he was attending the memorial service in 1894 for the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, the whole vista, with its ecstatic conclusion, came into view.

The conductor’s task in mounting this work, after attending to its innumerable details of painting with sound, is to recreate for the listener that experience of seeing the symphony as a whole, a drama unfolding over an hour and a half.

Scrupulously observing the composer’s detailed instructions in the score, van Zweden and his players gave a highly disciplined, well-balanced reading of the work. Paradoxically, achieving the 30,000-feet view of a Mahler symphony depends on conveying this composer’s famously volatile emotions—the fury, the sarcasm, the tenderness—at the bar-by-bar level. This is where Tuesday’s performance felt less alive, and therefore less convincing dramatically.

The first four movements tended to come off as mere preliminaries to the main event: the entrance in the last movement of those 120 singers seated above the stage throughout the performance. Hearing the orchestral exclamations, harsh marches, and plaintive appeals of the opening movement, one understood that the opening proposition of this symphony was death, without feeling it in one’s bones; the sudden catastrophic ending was experienced as just a loud descending scale. The virtue of playing in time, minding the balances, and letting the music “speak for itself” went only so far.

This substantial meditation on death was followed by three brief tableaux from life. The Andante moderato in a dainty three-to-a-bar was more accurate than charming, but van Zweden showcased Mahler’s endless felicities of scoring, especially the return of the dance tune in pizzicato strings, harp and piccolo.

Watery clarinets swirled through Mahler’s arrangement of his song “Saint Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes,” mingling nature imagery with ironic commentary on organized religion, with the darting fish as metaphors for human fickleness. Thursday’s performance rendered Mahler’s spare scoring admirably, but missed some of the movement’s humor.

Soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova were the soloists Thursday night. Photo: Chris Lee

In contrast, humanity’s inner spiritual aspirations were eloquently represented by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, making her Philharmonic debut, stealing in softly with “Urlicht” (Primal Light), a song to a bit of folk poetry from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a favorite Mahler source. With consistent, rounded tone in all registers, Gubanova fashioned a long vocal line out of the poem’s short phrases.

An apocalyptic summons interrupted the singer’s soft musings, ushering in the finale and its orchestral episodes ranging from a lone horn call to distant timpani thunder to a long crescendo threaded through with the movement’s distinctive themes. Van Zweden and the orchestra dug into the drama of it all, alternating crepuscular scenes and piquant bird calls with brassy marches in full sunshine.

The ultra-pianissimo entrance of the New York Philharmonic Chorus was every bit as “misterioso” as the composer indicated. Meticulously prepared by Malcolm J. Merriweather, the ensemble sang with heart and precise intonation, and one didn’t mind trading some articulation of the text for their richly blended tone.

Soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, also debuting with this orchestra, floated delicately free of the soft opening chorus, but eventually swelled her clear tone to fill the hall in impassioned dialogue with Gubanova as the music climbed from death to eternal life.

The symphony’s indelible closing pages, an all-out fortissimo for 200 players and singers, was surely meant as a grand sendoff to honor the orchestra’s hard-working music director. But van Zweden, bound for new posts in Seoul and Paris after a troubled half-decade in New York, can hardly have missed the extra meaning of the symphony’s final injunction: “Aufersteh’n”—Rise again.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

One Response to “Van Zweden wraps Philharmonic tenure with a mixed Mahler “Resurrection””

  1. Posted Jun 08, 2024 at 10:46 pm by Roderick Nash

    This was a brilliant and breathtaking performance.The conducting and the entire company of musicians were sublime. An unforgettable experience in all aspects.

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