The sheer scale of Mahler’s Symphony no. 6 in A minor and the questions of interpretation it poses to performers are such that I’m surprised it appears on the concert calendar as often as it does – no less than twice in the last 18 months alone by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Alan Gilbert.

Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert
© Chris Lee

Since its première in Essen in 1906, the work has been dogged by questions which have been the subject of copious musical scholarship. Which of the inner movements should come first – Andante or Scherzo? How many hammer blows should there be in the finale – two or three? Alan Gilbert decided in favour of Andante then Scherzo, and three blows. Rightly so, I think, as will soon become clear.

The first movement opens with an unmistakeable military march, underscored by the persistent snare drum, which gives way to a lyrical passage on strings apparently depicting his wife Alma, whom the composer is said to associate with relief and redemption. In the Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, the New York Philharmonic was uncharacteristically loud, with a strident tone that bordered on being fractious. There was a sense of anxiety rather than relief in the Alma theme, quite different from the orchestra’s performance in the Lincoln Center in October 2010. I put it down to the acoustics of the Carnegie Hall.

Given the “in your face” nature of the first movement, I was thankful that Alan Gilbert chose the Andante ahead of the Scherzo – to do the opposite would make the inexorable march-like theme almost unbearable. The Andante is a picture of rustic tranquillity rather than anguished lamentation. The heroes are the winds and the horn, to which Mahler gives some handsomely lyrical passages. Despite the continuing dynamic over-representation, fine solo playing was matched by an even orchestral temperament that preserved the movement’s inherent wistful serenity.

The Scherzo consists of material rhythmically similar to the opening theme in the first movement, but made the more urgent by percussive augmentation at the beginning. By this time the orchestra had moderated its tone and sounded more subdued. The strings and winds engaged in a hopscotch that, with the odd rhythm, sounded light and airy at times. The brass inserted a mocking element to make the story more compelling and the solo violin provided some hit-and-run commentary.

Although the length of the finale is daunting – about half an hour – its musical meaning seems clear. An immediate sense of fear and foreboding from the beginning is unmistakeable. Introduced by a sweep on the harp, the opening theme sounds very much like a truncated derivative of Alma’s theme from the first movement, rudely cut down to size by the brass. With deep sonority of the double basses and the solo horn sometimes crying like a wolf, you could almost convince me that Alfred Hitchcock had a hand in it. A tussle between life-affirming joy and the hands of doom pervades the movement, interrupted by an enchanting interlude of dialogue between solo violin and oboe.

Resilient moments of evocative and glorious triumph are repeatedly struck down, finally defeated by devastating hammer blows. In the words of his wife Alma Mahler: “It is the hero, on whom fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled.” The original score had three hammer blows, but Mahler, role-substituting himself as the hero, removed the third in a revised version after the first performance, fearing that he might be tempting providence to seal his own fate.

Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic chose to perform all three blows, heart-sinking thuds that brought a strong sense of finality. After the last blow the strings fell silent and left the action to the brass and winds, which spiralled into nothingness until the full orchestra put the nail in the coffin with a last burst in unison.

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is a behemoth, physically and emotionally demanding to perform, but if done right should be a cleansing musical experience which leaves the audience exclaiming that by Jove it’s good to be alive. Kudos to Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic for achieving this.