Wiener Philharmoniker buries Mahler again

Mahler died 100 years ago yesterday. This we know, thanks to a great deal of recent hullabaloo. While alive, Mahler was fond of thinking about death, which for his fans has endowed his passing with an outsized symbolic importance. This has led to a rash of morbidity and dubious biographical interpretation of his music (did you know the Symphony No. 6 was prophetic?*). I’m not a guest at this party. Death comes to us all, Mahler the Übermensch included. It’s something tragic and personal, not a piece of performance art. Memorialize the richness of the life, don’t fetishize its end. I do enjoy hearing Mahler’s music, though, and I went to the Wiener Philharmoniker’s memorial concert at the Staatsoper (Mahler’s old haunt) last night.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been boycotting the Philharmoniker for the past few months due to their sexism and general distastefulness, but the proceeds of this concert went to earthquake relief in Japan, so I made an exception.

Based on this performance, in which Daniele Gatti conducted the Symphony No. 9, the Philharmoniker didn’t care much about this event either. If they rehearsed for this concert, it didn’t do much good. This was disastrously sloppy playing with terrible ensemble, lots of intonation problems, and more wrong notes than you could shake a Wunderhorn at. (I’m looking at you, hornist in the second movement. BLAH bum bum bum Bum Bum. And you, flutist who got lost in the development in the first movement.) The brass and woodwinds (and out of tune chimes) were the primary culprits, but even the usually invincible strings sounded scrappy.

Gatti is an eccentric conductor, and the oddness of his stretched-out climaxes, dramatic pauses, lack of contrast, and strange balances only made things worse, losing any sense of shape in the first movement. The attempt at a thrilling accelerando at the end of the third movement fell apart in missed notes and poor ensemble. The strings came into better focus in the last movement, where Gatti alternated loud and full playing with intimate sections, but the ending was rather shaky. Total running time was around 90 minutes, on the slower side but not extreme. I assure you that this was not Gatti-is-weird interpretive peculiarity but objectively poor playing. I know this is an orchestra incapable of feeling shame, but I was actually shocked that they couldn’t do a little better for the Mahler memorial concert.** Silly me.

If this concert gets good notices in the press, I may scream. Sorry to be a Debbie Downer recently, I really want to write positive reviews, but that requires good performances.

If you want to watch Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker’s less geographically apt but probably infinitely less embarrassing memorial concert instead (with the Adagio from the Symphony No. 10 and Das Lied von der Erde), you can do so here.

*We were told all about this at an inane pre-concert lecture by dilettante Gilbert Kaplan, along with every other of the Top 20 Mahler Clichés. “Every emotion possible appears in Mahler’s music,” you know that?

**Conspiracy theories: a) since they weren’t being paid, were they stingy with rehearsals? b) Two women in woodwinds suggest presence of some ringers (yes this is pathetic but there are no women in the wind section on the roster). c) This symphony was originally scheduled for last fall but canceled due to a conductor change, and was not given a planned rehearsal workout then.

Gustav-Mahler-Gedenkkonzert (Symphony No. 9). Wiener Philharmoniker at the Wiener Staatsoper, 5/18/2011. Daniele Gatti, conductor.

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  1. Well well… Happy to find someone who likes the WP about as much as I do ! My next try will be with (hopefully) Boulez in Salzburg: one of my very favourite conductors, who is capable to make every second-rate orchestra play like gods. Wait and see !

  2. I recall that Kaplan's appearance with the NY Phil a few years ago led to some ornery musicians. It seems surprising to me that the WP would put up with him.

  3. Musicasola: I hate the orchestra, but they can turn in astonishingly good performances when they want to. I can't remember when I've heard an orchestra that has the ability to be so great sound quite this awful. I hope you write about Boulez; I'm seeing him with the lady-infected SKB in a few weeks at the Musikverein.

    Bobby, I believe you are referring to this incident?
    This time he was talking, not conducting, but it was still bad. I think he paid for the privilege, and that the Staatsoper and WP would put up with him is indeed distressing.

  4. Well you've been complaining about their sloppy unrehearsed performances the whole season. So don't quite get why you're so surprised now?

  5. Bogda, where have I done that? I have accused the Philharmoniker of many things but sloppiness is not one of them. I have often criticized the Staatsoper orchestra, but in their outside the pit Philharmoniker incarnation I have never been less than impressed with their technique.

  6. True, can't recall you ever accusing WP of sloppinnes. On the other side, you've been quite critical of Their Staatsoper incarnation. But this basically being the same orchestra performing under two different names don,t see why would this surprise you, especially when they were performing at Staatsoper itself.

  7. I'm not surprised to hear about the sloppiness. They were far from perfect in Paris recently – and that was under Thielemann, an infinitely better and more disciplined conductor than Gatti. Of course all the French press treated it like the Second Coming, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Austrians do too. Are ears no longer part of the critic's job description?

  8. Intermezzo, that doesn't surprise me. I'm not very comfortable going to Philharmoniker concerts and haven't been to many this season, so I can't say for sure if they are generally sloppy here or not. The Andris Nelsons Dvorak concert was remarkably good. But even Die Presse noted "einige solistische Irritationen" in the Mahler (major understatement!).

    Bogda, that's not quite true. The Staatsoperorchester is a larger group, and on many nights has little to do with the Philharmoniker. Also, the Philharmoniker generally rehearses for their concerts, unlike the Staatsoperorchester.

  9. (It occurs to me that my above comment makes little sense in context. I mean, I would not be surprised to hear some degree of untidiness from the Philharmoniker, but I was surprised to hear the extreme carelessness and basic mistakes in this Mahler.)

  10. 'Irritations', lol. It's hardly stinging. And he does write that all was overcome in the final movement (wirklich??). As for 'untermauerten schließlich sehr wohl noch ihren Rang als Mahler-Originalklang-Ensemble'… I think he cuts loose the sandbag holding down the credibility balloon there. It's also (the fairly junior) Walter Weidringer writing and chief critic Sinkovicz would have had first refusal for this event: you can add that to the list of conspiracy theories. Surprisingly, Tosic in Der Standard is much worse than Die Presse: the performance went without applause 'Natürlich nicht wegen mangelnder Qualität.' And Kaplan 'versuchte jedoch eindimensionale Erklärungen zu vermeiden', wtf? Though quoted out of context, this is hilarious: 'brachte der Mahler-Spezialist Gilbert Kaplan also die Peanuts mit'.

    Reflected a bit on my 'that was the worst Mahler 9 I’ve ever heard' comment to you after and decided the hyperbole was justified. ‘Schlamperei’, or sloppiness, isn’t really the right word to describe it; to me that word gives the sense of a fundamentally solid performance marred by careless slips (that the lapses were avoidable is what made Mahler so intolerant of Schlamperei). The problems on Wednesday weren’t that superficial. Even if everybody had played in tune I don’t think it would have been a very good performance (and that’s disregarding Gatti).

    Come to think of it in all of the bad WPO performances I’ve heard recently the problems were much worse than innocent Schlamperei. Their Alpensinfonie with FW-M was a mess. I was sat next to an elderly gentleman who judging from his ‘einzigartig’ comments in the interval doesn’t listen to them too critically, and even he was wincing during the Strauss. Their Glagolitic for Boulez’s birthday last year was a disgrace as well.

    I keep revising my view of how limited their core rep is (like for it not to include the Alpensinfonie is pretty incredible). Now I’ve got it down to fewer than 20 symphonies by Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Bruckner. To offer a guarantee of secure playing with just those four is a risky strategy I think.

  11. Sorry for the separate comments, I'm on my iPod and scrolling is hard.

    SS, that is an interesting point re: Sinko. Did he not want to pan it? Or not want to be obliged to rave? Either way makes him look spineless. About the rep, that's interesting too. They would probably say they're just focused on what they do best, but there is some kind of sports metaphor here where cross-training is needed.

  12. Zerbinetta:

    "We were told all about this at an inane pre-concert lecture by dilettante Gilbert Kaplan"

    Gilbert Kaplan seems to have a bottomless love for Mahler's music… I think that's great. Good for him.

    Give me a dilettante/enthusiast over an academic theorist anyday of the week.

  13. @ I’ve been boycotting the Philharmoniker …
    Don't worry, reading your comments let us smiling. Despite they are more Dichtung then Wahrheit sometimes. But keep on running.

  14. I do find it strange that Sinkovicz wasn’t there, it being the Todestag and all, but I withdraw the conspiracy theory, which implied that he missed it because he knew it would be bad. His musical judgement is so poor that he probably would have genuinely thought it a good concert had he been there. I think the gap between his ego and actual critical ability is very wide. Non-conspiracy explanation: he could just be ill, or on holiday. If only either could be permanent (*wishful thinking*).

    About the rep, yes, ‘tradition’ is very important to this orchestra. And the trade-off for Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner all the time and everything else slipshod is that they are capable of hitting Beethoven 7 out of the park in a way that few other orchestras can (my sports metaphors are very limited, sorry). It’s just that observing them for the last few seasons those performances seem to have become rarer as the sloppiness has worsened. The shrinking core rep might also have something to do with that decline, who knows.

    And commenter above: It’s like people whose enthusiasm for singing is best left in the shower. This lecture was shockingly bad in spite of Kaplan’s interest in Mahler. There’s a great Schoenberg anecdote, concerning a new version of chess he invented and subsequently refused to show to legendary chess champion Emanuel Lasker, commenting ‘and what do you think I would say if he showed me his harmony exercises?’ Shame we haven’t seen such refreshing self-restraint from many ‘Mahlerians’ over this last week.

  15. First, I'm glad you went and I'm glad it sucked because that was the most entertaining concert review I've ever read (the suckiness of the concert giving Zerbi a great opportunity to let it rip).

    Second, I have to disagree with Inter Mezzo about those Paris concerts because I think the VPO played really well. My ears may be bad and they are certainly inexpert, but they are not entirely inexperienced. I've heard the VPO many times, playing with widely varying levels of enthusiasm and technical precision. The Paris cycle was almost certainly (I would even say easily) in the top 20% of those performances in respect of the latter. No, they weren't perfect and perhaps Inter Mezzo has had a different range of experiences with them, but by most standards I think they offered secure, committed playing. Thielemann's interpretation is obviously a matter of taste but I found myself much more enthusiastic than I expected to be.

  16. I've never been much taken by the VPO when they've come to London (I mean, following the Rite of Spring with the Blue Danube??) and it sound like they're up to their old tricks here. Give me the Concertgebouw any day.

    Also, look at my blog!

  17. Andrew, I think I would like to hear the Philharmoniker try Le Sacre for the novelty value alone. I cannot imagine what that would sound like.

    Marcillac, I heard one installment of the Beethoven cycle in Vienna before the orchestra left for Paris, and was also impressed. Don't know about Paris, though.

    SS, agreed about the lecture. Boundless love in and of itself has limited educational value.

  18. Dear Andrew, they aren't up to their old tricks. They have performed Mahler's Ninth three times this week (Madrid, Saarbrücken, Leipzig) and it was'nt that bad. Not at all. Most statements have been enthusiastic. What you can't expect if the audience would have attended a funeral.