I have now heard Gustav Mahler‘s Fifth Symphony three times in 2019. Today’s performance, by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin was the best.
Nézet-Séguin took us on an emotional roller-coaster. He took the opening funeral march with deliberate pacing, emphasizing the deep dark bass lower registers to create a fearsome rumble upon which to construct the rest of the amusement park. Up the mood went to the blazing heights, only to come tumbling down in sheer terror. The aborted chorale at the end of second movement provided a glimpse ahead, before it too came crashing down.
The transformation occurred in the middle movement, which began with a warped dance full of foreboding until it resolved into something more hopeful. Then the fourth movement adagietto came across not as its usual melancholic self, but rather as something positive, to lead into an exuberant final movement, now with the complete chorale achieving its fullest triumph.
The Orchestra managed these mixed emotions with ease. I prefer to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour in better halls, since the acoustics in the Kimmel Center just are not very good. But even in this dull hall, the orchestra shone. If Minasi’s interpretation of this work with the Mozarteum Orchestra in May represented an experiment in approaching what was for that conductor an unfamiliar symphony, and Barenboim’s interpretation with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Festival in August was conventional and missing angst, Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians drained their souls this afternoon.
Unfortunately – and a big unfortunately – the Orchestra’s principal trumpet is undergoing shoulder surgery and was unable to perform, so they substituted in his place the principal trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera. He just was not very good (or at least far inferior to the standard of this orchestra) and flubbed too many notes in what is a very exposed trumpet part. They should have let one of the other orchestra trumpeters take on the principal part, and brought the Met’s musician in for a less-exposed part (the score has four trumpets, so he might have been able to handle the fourth trumpet OK). The rest of the Orchestra (definitely the best on this side of the Atlantic) sounded spectacular, full of nuance, charm, and verve, which made this substitution particularly painful.
Speaking of not very good musicians: the piano soloist in the concert’s first half, Louis Lortie was emotionless and mechanical. He hit the notes (which I suppose is more than the Met’s trumpeter managed during the Mahler), but without any sense of feeling at all (actually, the Met’s trumpeter at least had feeling). Wind Lortie up like a watch and he can keep time. The music was Franz Schubert‘s Wanderer Fantasy as arranged for piano and orchestra by Ferenc Liszt. The orchestra sounded warm and cheerful – but Lortie not so much. I suppose we should consider ourselves fortunate that they chose the Liszt arrangement (Schubert’s original was for piano solo, and Lortie would have been even worse without the orchestra keeping this thing going).