Mahler unremembered

Mahler unremembered


norman lebrecht

April 13, 2011

The start of Lorin Maazel’s Mahler cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra was as awful as it gets. The conductor, for reasons perverse or exhibitionist, reduced the Gesellen songs to half the prescribed tempo, draining them of sense and beauty.
The poor mezzo, Michelle deYoung, was left wobbling on a high rope between one note and the next, with audience members checking her vibrato on the Richter scale. You could have driven a small car, or ten tweets, through the holes in this performance.
Gone was the irony Mahler intended. In its place we heard pathos, self-pity and third-rate Wagner. So slow was the unfolding that Maazel conducted with Teletubby jerks and by the end stressed Michelle was edgy and harsh. Even Maazel seemed a bit put out, clutching the podium rail now and then for support, as I have not seen him do before.
The first symphony, by the mercy of Mahler, was an improvement. Tempi were mid-range and if the pace was prosaic the narrative flowed coherently and with moments of breath-catching beauty, especially from the guest #1 flute Emer McDonough and the upper strings. Absent, though, was any sense of wonderment. The crisp entries and whip-crack endings were gym-perfect, sounding as if they had been worked out to the limits of musical endurance.
There were faults, too. The double-bass smudged two notes in the pivotal opening of the third movement, possibly out of nerves. The brass were not always together.
The finale was brilliantly done, all ebbs and flows and tiny anticipations of resurrection, yielding the desired ovation. But it was not a night to remember. The Philharmonia played anonymously, as if they were any old orchestra located between Munich and Pittsburgh, and some of the key players were substitutes – the principal flute, clarinet and double-bass (these observations are disputed below by orchestra members). There was none of the usual esprit de corps. Only the new principal viola, Catherine Bullock, looked as if she was having a good night.
As a Mahler experience, this was close to nullity. Uplift, revelation, insight and enjoyment were in short supply. I hope the series improves. 
Why Mahler?


  • michael turner says:

    It’s a shame you have not bothered to check your facts. The Principal Bass the other evening was Christian Geldsetzer, who has been with the orchestra for about 20 years, rising through the ranks of Sub-Principla, Co-Principla and now on trial for the 1st seat. And I thought he was excellent by the way. The 1st Clarinet was Mark van der Wiel, who has been Principal Clarinet for many years.
    I am sorry that you didn’t enjoy the concert more. Maybe you came determined not to enjoy it. Fortunately the audience didn’t seem to share your view. I thought their response was fully merited: orchestra and conductor on tip-top form. I thought Maazel was as good as I have known him, and I have played for him for over 30 years now. We are all looking forward to this cycle immensely after this which for us was a brilliant opening concert.
    I agree that the tempo for the songs was on the slow side, though I understand that this was Michelle de Young’s idea. But she sang them very well, and never sounded as if she was running out of breath to my ears. Her control is amazing.
    I hope that you will come to more concerts in this series and with an open mind.
    NL replies: The principal doubles bass listed in the programme book is Neil Tarlton. He was absent. The #1 principal clarinet is Barnaby Robson: where was he? And why was the Philharmonia ringing around all week trying to get principals from other orchs to sit in for their flute?
    Once you’ve answered those, ask yourself why I – or anyone else – would ever go to a concert in order not to enjoy it.

  • Alistair Mackie says:

    Dear Norman,
    It is with dismay that I read this recent blog concerning the Philharmonia’s first concert in its current Mahler series with Lorin Maazel.I completely respect your right to an opinion about the orchestras performance and Maestro Maazel’s interpretation,even when that opinion differs wildly with my colleagues in the Philharmonia Orchestra,Alfred Hickling’s review in the Guardian (who awarded the performance a rare 5 star rating)and the many hundreds of audience members who rewarded the performance with a standing ovation in both London and Manchester.I must,however,take issue with you that you have been less than diligent in ascertaining some basic facts;The principal clarinet was Mark van de Wiel,a full member of the Philharmonia Orchestra since June 2001 and the principal bass was Christian Geldezter, a full member of Philharmonia Orchestra since Janaury 1997. You listed them inaccurately as substitutes. The Philharmonia operates a double principal system in almost every section and although the programme may have been incorrect in listing the wrong principal I am surprised that you neither knew these key players or took the trouble to check your facts before issuing your blog.The principal flute was indeed a substitute although you are,once again, incorrect when you suggest she was called last week. She was in fact engaged late last year when we granted one of our principal flutes a sabbatical.
    The Philharmonia Orchestra will indeed be touring this Mahler series in the coming weeks.We have concerts throughout the UK as well as in Luxemburg,Paris and throughout Germany.We have no plans however to tour China this year with Lorin Maazel or anyone else.
    The tempos in the songs were,as always dictated by the soloist not the conductor.In your enthusiasm to criticise Maestro Maazel you would appear to have fundamentally misunderstood this basic element of performance practice.
    Finally I wish to convey to you my disappointment that music criticism seems to have degenerated to error-spotting.”The double bass smudged two notes in the pivotal opening of the third movement”
    The Philharmonia is a group of exceptional musicians-musicians not computers.If you want technical perfection then heavily edited recordings are what you should be listening to.If instead you want live,vibrant,exciting music making I suggest you leave your obvious prejudices at home and come with open ears to the rest of what promises to be an amazing set of concerts.
    yours sincerely
    Alistair Mackie
    (joint principal trumpet and chairman of Philharmonia Orchestra. Full member since Feb 1997 !)
    Dear Alistair
    Thank you for your reasoned reponse to my post on your Mahler concert, which I publish in full. The information on the China tour came from your manager David Whelton some months back. Perhaps I should have checked with him again; evidently it has come to nothing.
    I think you misread my comments about substitutes, but no matter.
    On the issue of Mahler I write with the authority of 30 years study, longer even than your tenure in the orchestra, two published books and several documentaries. I represented my own views of the performance. But those views were shared by many around me, including quite a few professional musicians and broadcasters.
    I do not expect musicians to be automatons, but the opening of the third movement of Mahler 1 is pivotal to the piece. If the d-b fluffs it, that does not – and should not – pass unnoticed.
    I admire your defence of the Philharmonia. Your predecessor Keith Bragg will tell you that I have strongly defended the orchestra myself on many occasions in the past and expect to do so again in future, difficult times.
    best wishes

  • Anonymous says:

    Mr Lebrecht,
    A shame you didn’t enjoy the concert, and of course that is a personal and true experience you had. I don’t usually care about bad reviews of good concerts – it’s the good reviews of bad concerts that make my blood boil.
    I shall help Mr Turner answer your questions.
    You may argue with a member of the orchestra that “Barnaby Robson” is principal clarinet, but a critic of your experience (I assume you’ve attended Philharmonia concerts in the past?) would surely remember the long standing principal woodwind players of the major London orchestras. Mark van de Wiel and Barnaby have shared this job for many, many years now, it’s listed on the website, it’s in every RFH Philharmonia programme in the full orchestral list. Our No.2 Double Bass plays principal around half the time – it’s part of the job. He has done this a few years now. So you claiming the orchestra lacked its “usual esprit de corps”, as you put it, means nothing, as you don’t seem to come to our concerts enough to know what Philharmonia’s usual and long-standing personnel is.
    Claiming (incorrectly) that there were many substitutes implies it was invaded by non-members, alien to the orchestra, which simply wasn’t true in this case. There wasn’t a single face that was even vaguely new to me. As for why, as you say, the orchestra was ringing around all week looking for a replacement principal flute, I find this very odd, as the player list e-mailed to me on 5th March (over a MONTH ago) clearly lists Emer McDonough as principal. Perhaps you’d like to check this with our Personnel Manager. It feels as if you imply disorganisation. This I resent.
    NL replies: I did not say there were many substitutes, if you read the piece again. And I did hear from players in other orchestras that they were approached as subs in the previous week.

  • Michael Turner says:

    I’m sorry Norman, your response to my remarks yesterday simply will not do. Read your programme booklet which covers all 10 concerts in the series between now and 9th October. Turn to page 59. I won’t bore you with the full paragraph, but had you taken the trouble to read it you would see that it lists the full membership of the orchestra on going to press, but with a disclaimer saying that the personnel for each concert is (and was) available from the programme sellers on a separate sheet. Maybe you lost yours.
    But even the list in the programme book gives two 1st Clarinets: Barnaby Robson and Mark van de Wiel. They were appointed at the same time, many years ago, and hold equal rank in the orchestra as you no doubt already know, being so concerned with these things. Furthermore, Christian Geldsetzer is listed second on that list. Currently he is co-principal, but is on trial for the Joint Principal seat. And I take great exception to the suggestion that my old friend and colleague “smudged two notes… possibly out of nerves”. His solo will be available on the recording in due course, but I will challenge anyone to find any fault with his fine solo contribution. There was no hint of nerves, and I feel that you should at least retract that remark. It is just as well that you didn’t make any adverse comment about the superb new principal in my own section, Catherine Bullock, otherwise you and I really would be falling out.
    As for turning up determined not to enjoy a concert, why indeed? But come on Norman, you know perfectly well that you and many of your colleagues do this all the time, however much you may huff and puff. As you so rightly say it is hard to understand why anyone would go to a concert in order not to enjoy it, but you and they sometimes do, and sadly always will.
    I have been a member of this orchestra for 25 years now and a professional player for 36, and think I know a good concert and a good conductor by now. This was a great performance from a great orchestra and conductor at the top of their games. Maybe you should listen to the response of the public before coming out with your opinions. Of course you are entitled to your opinion, but then so am I, and in mine you do not know what you are talking about.

  • Keith Bragg says:

    (Oh) Dear Norman, what a mess you have got yourself into. As one who has known (and had very good relations with) you for many years I can confirm to Alistair, as you suggest, that you have been a friend to symphony orchestras in general and to an individual orchestra which aspires to excellence as the Philharmonia does in particular on many occasions. Knowing you as I do I have every confidence that you will continue to do so.
    It’s clear that you didn’t enjoy the Mahler 1 concert and, even if you were in a wickedly tiny minority (and you were!), you have the right, and perhaps even the duty, to reflect that in your blogged criticism. But unfortunately you also made factual errors in your blog which have been pointed out to you most accurately by my colleagues and which, in the case of you proposing that it was the conductor and not the singer who chooses the tempi for a work such as fahrenden gesellen, hint at a rather worrying lack of knowledge about the working etiquette and practice of symphonic music. Your response has been to try and defend yourself with bluster about misreading which is simply not supported by the written word, and by yet more untruth. (the story about the Philharmonia trying to book first flutes a week ahead is a complete falsehood and if you had bothered to check your facts, as any journalist worth his salt should do, you would have known that. (Norman, you could have asked me…I play in the same section and have known that Emer had been booked for months)
    Your criticism of the Double Bass solo was also your opinion; not one I share but again I would defend your right to hold it. All musicians sometimes have performances when they do not play up to their usual standards and this, perhaps, is something they have in common with music critics who, day after day, slave to churn out top quality articles and, just occasionally and however esteemed they may be, have an off-day. Most musicians I know will put their hand up, apologise for their mistake or bad performance and move on to the next one, hoping to do better. Just as “the opening of the third movement of Mahler 1 is pivotal to the piece” I would say that getting your facts accurate is a skill and a discipline which is pivotal to good journalism. On this occasion you simply didn’t get your facts right and this has now been unanswerably demonstrated to you by numerous people and in numerous ways. Come on Norman, I know you to be a gracious person, have the good grace to admit that this was a poor piece of work on your part and that in sportsman’s terms, you “played an absolute stinker”. All it needs is a quick apology for the inaccuracies and we can all move on to enjoy yet more revelatory Mahler concerts together! People will only respect you and your work all the more.
    With best wishes.
    NL replies:
    Dear Keith
    You, of all people, would surely not expect me to withdraw an honestly formed opinion. As for the facts, they tend to speak for themselves.
    Are you saying the singer chose the tempi for the song cycle? In that case, why bother to pay a conductor?
    Also, I cannot imagine why flautists in other orchestras were getting calls if Emer had been booked for a month – and where were your two principal flutes on what should have been your biggest night of the season? Don’t bother to reply, Keith. This has gone on long enough.
    I did notice though that you, for one, were enjoying the performance.
    all best

  • Alexander Hall says:

    It is quite sad when musical criticism descends to paltry nit-picking. Let me, as a Friend of the orchestra, point out to anyone out there who has an open mind and still needs to be persuaded that the Philharmonia Orchestra covered themselves in glory on 17 May when they played Mahler 5 in Hamburg and on 21 May when they performed Mahler 1 in Bremen. I attended both of these concerts and can report that it made me intensely proud to hear a great British orchestra produce playing of such commitment and virtuosity. And in case the point still needs to be underlined: I have followed all the German media comment about the recent Mahler tour with Maazel and I did not read ONE SINGLE adverse or hostile comment about the playing standards of the orchestra. Philharmonia – you were simply great!