“The real art of conducting consists [of] transitions.” Gustav Mahler’s quip provides a timeless metric for gauging performances of not only his music but a great deal of other music as well. It indeed served as an important principle underlying the performance of Philip Glass’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony by Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic. 56-year-old van Zweden is the 2017-2018 Music Director Designate for the Philharmonic, and many were eager to see and hear this first series of performances of the season with him.

Jaap van Zweden © Marco Borggreve
Jaap van Zweden
© Marco Borggreve

Katia and Marielle Labèque (for whom Glass composed the concerto) provided a compelling performance of the three-movement work. Although the orchestral blend didn’t always mix well with the pianistic textures, the interplay and dialogue between the two pianos was executed with consistent precision and mastery. Somewhat unorthodoxly, the third movement is a slow one (preceded by two faster movements), but the constant hemiolas and polyrhythmic three-against-two figures imbue it with a brisk feel. The Philharmonic’s strings duly played traditionally Glassian ostinati beneath changing woodwind and piano lines, and a soft ending brought the work to a close. 

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, despite being in five movements, is split into three parts: Part Ⅰ consists of the first two movements, Part Ⅱ of the Scherzo, and Part Ⅲ of the Adagietto and Rondo finale. The transitions to which Mahler refers in his quote are of utmost importance here to achieve cohesion across this large and complex symphonic work. An appropriately fortissimo orchestral entrance following the initial trumpet solo set the stage for an engaged performance, but the dynamic contrast of the pianissimo second theme was not quite as dramatic as the score suggests it ought to be. The remainder of the first movement continued smoothly with the various climaxes punctuated strongly by the impeccable percussion section.

The transition between the first and second movement was swift and effective, with the impassioned cries of the brass bursting forth through the scurrying strings in the opening statement. The cello solo atop the rumbling timpani was tender and not rushed, and the ensuing chaos in the brass and woodwinds was very effective. Trombones shone here, their articulation crisp, sharp and uniformly matched. The highly virtuosic contrapuntal writing of the second movement often presents a considerable challenge for low brass, but the Philharmonic's musicians played it with impressive ease and finesse.

The Scherzo can be a difficult movement to pull off, especially after the first two movements of the symphony (which are completely different in character), and the solo horn got off to a slightly rocky start at the beginning. As in the first movement, dynamic contrast often felt lacking, although there were plenty of sufficiently loud climaxes, the pianissimo sections often felt too loud, even on autopilot at times. Despite an otherwise impressive performance from the percussion, the whip dominated the texture when it entered, subduing the fortissimo trumpets and tipping the timbral balance. However, the closing bars with the frenetic dialogue between strings and brass were full of white-hot frisson.

The Adagietto has been subjected to all manner of distortion from conductors past and present, and only a scarce few conductors have adhered rigorously to Mahler’s explicit performance directions, most notably about tempi. Van Zweden’s tempo was (fortunately) not funereal, although it was also not as brisk as Willem Mengelberg’s at his characteristic seven-minute clip (which is closer to Mahler's intentions than most other conductors' performances). Harp aside, the playing was somewhat vanilla, but the surprise modulations, such as that to G flat major (in accordance to the music's program of unfulfilled desire for Alma), were well-executed. However, the rush through the final three bars of the movement stuck out like a sore thumb. The effect of the first violins' sensuously long suspension was botched as those final bars were truncated, leading to a rather abrupt and unsatisfying close to the movement.

Although the music goes attaca into the Rondo finale, the transition between the fourth and fifth movement remains very important, and it was treated with haste in this evening’s performance. Fortunately, the orchestra handled the complex contrapuntal writing and fugal entries adeptly and the uniformly crisp articulation made for a driven and exciting performance of the finale. Despite the cymbal player missing the first entrance leading up to the final peroration, the close of the symphony was very strong indeed. A satisfying performance overall with many rousing moments but not without its instances of missed opportunity.

***11