That a major German orchestra would start its two performances at Carnegie Hall, under the baton of its Moscow born music director, with two staples of the French repertoire instead of, say, a little gem of a Haydn symphony, is a true sign of how much things have changed in the global musical world. Lead by Valery Gergiev, a highly versatile maestro, the members of the Munich Philharmonic were not terribly successful in their attempt. On the first of the two nights, Ravel’s La Valse sounded too heavy. On their second evening, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune was less so, but neither was their rendition a truly exhilarating one, worthy of this ten minute long opus that, for many listeners, represents the departing point for modern music. Principal flute Michael Martin Kofler navigated the descending semitones of the introductory measures with clarity, the dialogue between woodwinds and strings was effective and the harp’s or horn’s interventions were always accurate. Leaving aside the exaggerated ritardandos and pauses before transitions, everything was comme il faut. But, overall, the performance lacked most of the magic and sensuality imbued in the score and the extraordinary tonal and harmonic elusiveness of the music was rarely conveyed.

Valery Gergiev conducts the Munich Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall © Steve J Sherman
Valery Gergiev conducts the Munich Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall
© Steve J Sherman

Written when the composer was only 19, classical in structure and marked by Beethoven’s shadow, Schubert’s Fourth Symphony is hardly an undisputed masterpiece. But occasionally there are hints of Schubert’s special gifts in this work, premiered many years after the composer’s death. One can hear from the very beginning, in the lengthy Adagio molto introduction, the sad sweetness, the singing voices, the specific harmonic inflexions. For unknown reasons, Gergiev decided to employ a full-blown orchestra, anchored by eight double basses. As a result, the projected sound was excessive and any sense of intimacy was absent. The melancholic quality of the Andante’s music and the true Romantic harmonies of the Finale were mostly lost.

After intermission, the Münchner Philharmoniker played Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 in G major, his sunniest, premiered in 1901 under the composer’s own baton by the Kaim Orchestra, the initial name of this very ensemble. It was by far the most rewarding experience of the evening. Using his trademark, fingers fluttering, gestures, Maestro Gergiev shaped wonderful individual details, even if the construction of the overarching structure was less convincing. Transitions were beautifully handled and the buildups leading to mighty sonic walls were never rushed.

Valery Gergiev conducts the Munich Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall © Steve J Sherman
Valery Gergiev conducts the Munich Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall
© Steve J Sherman

Interpreting this turning point in Mahler’s output, the last of his nine symphonies to use a text from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection, provided individuals and groups of instrumentalists a showcase for displaying their virtuosity. Using his second fiddle, deliberately mistuned, the leader played a devilish melody in the Scherzo that could have sounded a tad more sinister. In the same segment, the trumpet fanfare and the solo horn intervention were as impressive. The recollections brought forward by the violas in the final of the Ruhevoll were simultaneously forceful and delicate.

Making her way majestically from a side door during the last bars of the third movement, soprano Genia Kühmeier was the worthy soloist in the paradise-bound finale. Without being exceptionally brilliant, her suave and expressive voice, adequately integrated in the overall orchestral tapestry, was well suited for bringing forward the child’s vision of heaven described in Das Himlische Leben.

If his numerous visits to New York are a correct indication, Valery Gergiev has always conducted both outstanding and so-so performances even with the Mariinsky ensemble that he has overseen for decades. His partnership with the Munich Philharmonic is still a very young one and their common path can lead in many directions, but it’s a path worth following.