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.