Having only seen Alan Gilbert conduct once, in last summer’s wishy-washy New York Philharmonic season closer, I was eager to watch him take the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic in the first weekend of April. In the fall, a troupe of young guest conductors paraded through Berlin, each demonstrating the skills which mostly justify their PR machines; I was curious to see if Gilbert could match up to them, if not to the more recent august appearances of Bernard Haitink, Herbert Blomstedt, and others. Filling in for the baby-incapacitated Gustavo Dudamel, Gilbert proved a worthy if not astounding leader. His program, modified slightly from Dudamel’s, provided a good swath of standard repertory to make for easy judgment—two opportunities for collaborating with soloists, in Berg’s Seven Early Songs and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22, and one opportunity to shine alone, in Stravinsky’s Firebird.
In 1928, in the wake of the successes of Wozzeck and his Lyric Suite, Alban Berg orchestrated a collection of unrelated songs from his student years. Each of the seven lieder, though endowed with a Mahlerian glimmer, floats without ever quite touching down, a problematic case of a composer re-interpreting his youth—what could be a fascinating set of gems in a song recital becomes overblown and indulgent with full orchestra. Stotijn sang clearly and with strong projection, but her voice lacks color; the combination with Gilbert’s somewhat directionless conducting yielded the result of the songs having the same shimmering boredom.
Things improved dramatically with the Mozart, where pianist Emanuel Ax and Gilbert made an excellent pair. Gilbert conducted with elegant sweep and an appealing tautness, giving each individual phrase its own character. Ax provided his usual exquisite, crisply articulated dynamism, and the two musicians fed off each other’s energy—a rare instance when a seasoned soloist and younger maestro see eye-to-eye.
In the Firebird, the Philharmonic gave a characteristically astounding performance, with notably excellent contributions from woodwind principals Albrecht Mayer and Emanuel Pahud. The slinky work of arch-Russian early modernism features every hallmark of what a great conductor must bring to a performance: sharp senses of rhythm, balance, color, and momentum. Gilbert brought almost all of it. He tends to micromanage, focusing on giving big cues rather than stepping back and letting the orchestra take care of itself, but his approach usually works; his precise, clear gestures lent a sense of deliberateness throughout, and the work’s forty-five minutes felt well-paced. What it lacked, though, was a sense of the new—a master of a repertory staple like this would point out a few new details along the way, bringing out an exotic timbre or bizarre little phrase—and Gilbert generally stuck to the basics. But in the final moments, when the submerged, silky music suddenly turns towards razing, Romantic grandeur, Gilbert rose fully to the occasion, exuberantly taking command of the orchestra in broad, slashing conducting. For two minutes, he seemed like the best conductor in the world.
What more can be said about Simon Rattle’s Mahler? Last week we reached the Fifth, with only one more symphony to be performed this season. Rattle’s Five has a special importance—it opened his first concert as music director of the Berlin Phil—and his performance showed that it is perhaps the one Mahler symphony he has contemplated the most. In his readings of the First through Fourth, Rattle resolved the unsettling contradictions of Mahler’s music, transforming the composer’s inherent weirdness into blooming, comforting waves of sound. Not so in the Fifth, where Rattle achieved a refined strangeness in the sharp contours of the second movement and the busy bliss of the finale.
In the opening, though, Rattle brought Mahler’s massive contrasts almost to an extreme, juxtaposing the searing main theme with an excruciatingly-slow crawl—an unfortunate loss of intensity. But his careful planning and controlled climaxes, for the most part, paid off: the famous Adagietto unraveled as one long, gorgeous line, with not a single cough in the resonant Philharmonie heard over its ten minutes, as the entire audience seemed to hold its breath. Principal trumpet Gábor Tarkövi deftly handled the difficult solo part (if not quite reaching the same greatness as his American counterpart Chris Martin and Phil Smith), and Stefan Dohr displayed his otherworldly horn sound in the scherzo, flawlessly combining brawniness with regality and pure, singing tone.
The concert opened with Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, a solemn processional for chorus, brass, percussion, and organ. Rattle conducted the work with a restrained reverence, a reminder of his impressive career in early music. With sublime brass tapers and glowing, restful cadences provided by the RIAS Kammerchor, the music proved a perfect complement to Mahler’s funereal loftiness.