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Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1903-05, rev. 1906): New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel, conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, June 22 and 25, 2005 (BH)



Just last month I heard a bracing and powerful Mahler Sixth by Markus Stenz with the Minnesota Orchestra, and now this one – a gleaming, highly polished finale to the New York Philharmonic’s season.  On paper, the Sixth might be tailor-made for Lorin Maazel’s strengths, although I confess I am not familiar with his Mahler recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic, completed in the 1980s and 1990s.  But this was a Sixth with elegance and relative high spirits.  Perhaps in the way of Boulez with this piece, Maazel chose brilliant illumination over rough-hewn edginess, with less chiaroscuro than most interpreters find, but it worked.


As has been reported earlier and by others, the New York Philharmonic is sounding quite impressive these days, and here seemed entirely comfortable, yet energized, in one of the most difficult challenges in the repertoire.  The mercurial Sixth has anxiety, pain, sadness, ebullience, winsomeness, and shock – all shoving each other aside in a ninety-minute fight for dominance that ultimately implodes, promising nothing more to listeners except grim emptiness.  The irony is that in creating his stark vision, Mahler produced a hugely entertaining ride, often as seductive as a Hollywood film score, albeit riddled with surprises.


The Philharmonic’s brass section, in particular, was seemingly invulnerable.  Phil Myers, principal horn, is marking his twenty-fifth year with the group, and how better to celebrate than with a golden-hued performance like this, supremely affirmative in its artistry, without a weak-kneed moment anywhere.  Principal tuba Alan Baer produced marvelously characterized growls of forlorn defeat in the final measures of the evening.   And the barrage of trumpets and trombones were no less precise.  If as a group they could still play even softer now and then (I’m picky) I’ll gladly accept the tradeoff in precision and sheer musical enthusiasm.


Maazel adopted the Andante-Scherzo order for the middle movements.  The utterly haunting Andante was flowing, piercing and unwavering in its questioning and sorrow.  The orchestra’s strings, especially the violins, outdid themselves in Mahler’s long lines.  The savage Scherzo erupted in all its ominous splendor, its occasional shrieking outbursts immaculately timed, with the bassoon getting a satisfying last growl before the final movement’s descent into madness.


For the famous hammer blows (two here, rather than three), the Philharmonic used a brand-new “Mahler box,” designed by noted acousticians and making its debut at these concerts.  Percussionist Dan Druckman, already seen sneaking backstage several times to do the offstage cowbells, was charged with its debut, and with Maazel’s body language cueing him, the two thuds had maximum effect, unleashing more torrents as the orchestra raced to the finish line.


Quite chillingly, the very last “plunk” that closes the piece wasn’t the pianissimo that I’ve heard most often.  Rather, it had a nasty sting, as if in some 1950s film noir, with the protagonist frantically hanging by fingertips from a rooftop ledge thirty stories above the street – and then having those fingers stepped on.  The friend with me had never heard a drop of Mahler before and had no idea what she was getting into, and loved it.



Bruce Hodges 



Lorin Maazel’s performance of Mahler’s Sixth with the New York Philharmonic can be heard on the New York Phil’s website until 13 July.









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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)