Powerful playing and uneven conducting in Alsop’s Mahler 6
Marin Alsop has been working her way through Mahler’s symphonies with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since her debut as music director in 2007. She has now reached one of the most difficult works in this Mahler cycle, with the Sixth Symphony, heard on Thursday night in the Music Center at Strathmore. Given the intensely emotional nature of the piece, the performers should leave, metaphorically, some blood on the floor. The reality was much more polite.
Mahler composed the Sixth Symphony during the happiest phase of his life, newly married and doting on his beloved first daughter. On its website the BSO identified the Sixth Symphony as “Mahler’s big, dramatic and life-affirming masterpiece.” This point of view, likely reflecting Alsop’s ideas, widely misses the mark and may account for the performance’s shortcomings. Big and dramatic the Sixth certainly is, but it is the complete reverse of life-affirming.
The first movement got off to a rough start, largely due to the lack of polish and focus in the playing under Alsop’s direction. The opening march was imprecise, but the violins soared passionately and with spacious rubato on the amorous second theme identified with Mahler’s wife, Alma. The music pulses with dread, tensely represented by a funeral march motif that shifts menacingly from major to minor. The BSO’s massed violin sound is a regular source of pride, clean, gleaming, and unified in attack and intonation.
Things got better on the repeat of the exposition material. Especially in loud passages, Alsop still tends to miss details, a generally full-throated approach too often covering the unusual colors of stopped horn, celesta, or col legno strikes in the strings. The trombones made spectacular contributions to the shocking moments, although there were weaknesses in the trumpets throughout the evening.
After the premiere of the Sixth Symphony, Mahler made many changes to the score, which have complicated all performances of the piece. Alsop chose to follow Mahler’s second thought on the order of the middle movements, playing the slow movement before the Scherzo. This had the usual result, which is to deprive the Finale of some of its shock value, because it follows an active movement instead of the dreamy Andante Moderato. She kept the slow movement moving forward, straining perhaps against the musicians, who seemed to long for more sensuous rubato. Solos from French horn and English horn were excellent.
One of the major disappointments was in the signature sound of this symphony, the cowbells that mark a mysterious departure from the normal sphere of consciousness. Mahler loved walking in the high Alps, and anyone who has made such a walk has heard this distinctive sound hovering resonantly in the thinning air as you pass into the clouds above the pastures on the lower slopes. Both offstage and onstage the BSO’s cowbells sounded dull and muted, missing the magical effect in the score.
The Scherzo that followed had a raucous, neurotic quality, more playful in the metrically lopsided trio. The menace of the low brass was a periodic reminder that tragedy was not far off, with that major-to-minor motif appearing at the end of the movement. Doom finally strikes in the finale, represented famously by the blow of an enormous hammer strike that wounds the symphonic hero and ultimately “fells him as a tree is felled,” as Alma Mahler put it.
Mahler later removed the third, fatal hammer strike, a revision that Alsop chose to follow. Even without the third stroke, the message is clear: just when you are happiest, most assured of victory, the most confident in the way that the future will unfold as you want it to, a large percussionist starts to make his way toward that sledge hammer. The effect Thursday night was loud and visually satisfying, but it was a boom more than an ax-blow-like thud, as requested in the score.
The BSO musicians gave an implacable sense of desperation to the tragedy of the Finale, capping an admirable musical achievement. Alsop’s uneven interpretation, however, kept the score’s searing tragedy from making its full impact.
The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. bsomusic.org; 410-783-8000.