Mahler symphony performances arrive often these days, but the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Thursday outing with the Symphony No. 5 was a real landmark.
Not only was the piece on Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s first concert in 2010 after he was appointed the orchestra’s music director designate, but it’s also available complete on an audio download, with excerpts on video, allowing listeners to hear how so much has evolved and yet stayed the same.
Nine years later, the maestro has less hair (don’t we all?) but more of everything else to give to this symphony in which Mahler left behind earlier folk influences, delved into dark obsessive terrors, and had glimpses of nirvana — but wasn’t above quoting Viennese waltzes.
With so much packed into the five-movement, 70-minute piece, is it any wonder that Nézet-Séguin now uses a baton? (He didn’t in the symphony’s fourth movement in 2010.) No doubt that aided in maintaining a sense of structure in a piece that can turn into a hyper-romantic sprawl.
Then and now, Nézet-Séguin’s Mahler 5th is founded on an extremely detailed reading of the score, one avoiding extreme tempos. So, conceptually, there has been little change over time.
But within that frame, everything was writ larger in 2019. Thursday night’s Verizon Hall concert was louder, softer, cleaner, messier, grander, more intimate, clearer, and more mysterious.
The orchestra also has more stamina. The 2010 performance showed signs of fatigue near the end, while 2019 finished with power to spare.
The Thursday performance was less technically perfect, which isn’t a contradiction but a sign of passion on a higher level. I want a performance, not a re-enacted rehearsal.
The first-movement funeral march was a triumph of structural engineering, with bold, recurring motifs that didn’t wear out their welcome, and tempos that conveyed proper lamentation without tedium. The second movement’s stunned-beyond-reason cello solo, heard above a hushed timpani trill, projected as something suitably indefinable, but boldly.
Moments that other conductors take for granted became emotional and structural pivot points under Nézet-Séguin.
The famous, often-excerpted “Adagietto” movement was interesting for what it was not. The music is lyrical, tender, and song-like, a single musical event in a symphony that, elsewhere, has events stacked on top of one another.
Late-in-life Leonard Bernstein slowed it to a super-expressive crawl. Nézet-Séguin maintained a healthy pulse and kept the movement from dominating the entire symphony.
Where was the Philadelphia Orchestra sound in all of this? Mostly in the final movement, even amid the hectic everything-happening-at-once velocity of the music. So this performance had it all — which is quite good news for an orchestra with a spotty Mahler tradition.
Past music directors Eugene Ormandy, Riccardo Muti, and Wolfgang Sawallisch conducted Mahler selectively. And those who did more — Christoph Eschenbach and Charles Dutoit — left little overall imprint.
The Mahler is the after-intermission piece on this weekend’s orchestra program. As for the concert’s first half, one tends to be skeptical of hybrids such as the Schubert/Liszt Wanderer Fantasy, written by Schubert in 1822 and rewritten by Liszt for piano and orchestra in 1851. But few artists out there have as much artistic integrity as guest pianist Louis Lortie, with his crystalline sonority and unfailing good taste.
The lid that he so often keeps on his temperament was largely off on Thursday, encompassing both Schubert’s contained sensibility and Liszt’s more extroverted showmanship.
The Lisztian element gave more weight to Schubert’s ideas but, in this performance, never vulgarized them.