The Philharmoniker’s Mahler 6: More cowbell

The Philharmoniker is on tour this month with Semyon Bychkov, but before they departed, the sexist bastards are allowing us in Vienna a preview of their three programs in four concerts. This represents the sum total of their performances in the city this month. This is rather typical (unles you count the Staatsoper, which you shouldn’t). Three different programs is actually generous, comparatively speaking.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, the “Tragic,” is just about as imposing as No. 9, which I heard Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic give a few weeks ago. Unfortunately I felt that this performance was also lacking something, though I can’t quite put my finger on what. Maybe these are more my usual problems navigating Mahler’s unwieldy forms than the orchestra’s. It was extraordinarily accomplished on a technical level, with faultlessly clear textures and ensemble, opulent tone, and, with the exception of some overloud brass, barely a note out of place or balance. For those of you who collect critical editions, the scherzo preceded the andante but there were only two hammer blows.

I liked the restrained opening, and Bychkov and the orchestra never resorted to excess. However, I wonder if they perhaps should have–this is Mahler, after all.  Some odd tempos and an oddly episodic feeling made the entire performance never really pay off.  There were lovely moments: beautiful chamber playing in the winds in the first movement, that otherworldly strings/percussion passage, and particularly the opening of the third movement, which had a gorgeous gentleness. But the second movement lacked a certain element of caricature, and the lengthy last movement, until the exciting coda, again felt disconnected. In 90 minutes, you’d think it would add up to something.

Also, I couldn’t see the hammer due to a column. This was very disappointing. Is the Philharmoniker still using the Ur-Mahler Hammer? I think there is a good chance they are.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Semyon Bychkov, conductor. Musikverein, 2/2011. Program: Mahler, Symphony No. 6, “Tragic.”

You may also like


  1. I don't do twitter, but I saw your message about proofreading. Feel free to delete this comment after you read it. Indeed, some bloggers whose reviews I respect greatly would from time to time ignore their typos. One would think that it is not hard to check spellings, given the computers we have nowadays. (Well, computers are not that smart sometimes. Mine keeps red-underlining the word "bloggers") I have only found one typo in your writings (teh, I think you meant, the), but I have noticed that sometimes your punctuations are incorrect. You used "," rather than "." when the subjects of the sentences are different. Maybe you just got very excited about what your were writing, as other bloggers did. 🙂 That said, I do hope that all the serious critics-bloggers would take more care of their typing and usage of punctuations, if they would like to claim that they do a better job than some silly print journalists.

    Best of luck and happy blogging.

  2. It was indeed an odd performance because it's not often that conductors or orchestras fail to give expression to the Sixth's flawed symphonic unity. Mahler was really striving too hard in this work and that's usually also what conductors do. This more restrained performance was episodic, like you said, which reveals just how fragile the Sixth's unity is. I wouldn't necessarily say that Kubelik and Eschenbach have perceived the work in the way I have, but for me theirs are among the few interpretations which demonstrate engagement with this problem.

    Sadly no Urhammer: it looked brand new to me. I couldn't see much effort being put into it either. When in California perhaps they should get Arnold Schwarzenegger to wield it.

    I have a friend in Berkeley who will be seeing this programme, and am interested to see how the VPO will be received in the heartland of American political correctness. Judging from the link in your Twitter comment it seems that critical fangs have already been bared.

    As you know, I enjoy torturing myself by playing devil's advocate with the VPO, since given my interest in them I'm aiming for greater objectivity. As far as changing their ways is concerned, protests and polemics (such as William Osborne's) are counter-productive as they only entrench the orchestra's reactionism. There is no protest movement in Austria, though opponents include the Green party, who lost a battle with the VPO last year. I attended the committee and parliamentary sittings on this (the parliamentary session on Mahler's birthday, no less), which debated a deal struck ten years ago – in fact a legally binding contract – that secured a subsidy of some €20 million in exchange for a reasonable (but unspecified) increase in the number of women admitted to full membership. And also for acting as a good ambassador for Austria (which makes the Carnegie Hall protests interesting because the impression many Americans got from the publicity was that modern Austria must be a nation of crypto-fascist woman-haters). The contract was up for renewal and cancelled – indeed the Greens believe the Republic ought to sue the VPO for breaching it (though I've been in contact with Green politicians and they dismiss the idea of anything more vocal than parliamentary criticism, which is interesting). The subsidy will instead be handed over to the Staatsoper orchestra, where federal equality laws apply as the Staatsoper is nominally a federal institution – unlike the Philharmonic, a private Verein. But this is a charade; it is an inevitability that the money will be subsequently transferred to the VPO. Not that they are in need of the €20m but I get the sense that they feel a debt of gratitude is owed to them by the Republic (we're talking egos the size of Jupiter here), this time without humiliating conditions. So they really have run rings around the politicians. No wonder they feel emboldened enough to visit California of all places.