The New York Philharmonic continued its final European tour under the baton of Alan Gilbert on Friday, beginning a weekend residency at the Barbican with Bartók and Mahler. It was an interesting pairing of works from both – the unclassifiable Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta matched with what is often considered a more innocent Symphony no. 4. They complemented each other well, and the sensitivity in programming was present in the performing. And yet, at times I found myself longing for just a bit more edge, more rawness – it was, perhaps, just too good for its own good.

Alan Gilbert, Christina Landshamer and the New York Philharmonic © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert, Christina Landshamer and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

There was still much to savour, however, from the lugubrious opening of the Bartók to the dying away of the harp at the end of the Mahler, and watching Gilbert draw so much out of the orchestra with often only the slightest gesture was a masterclass in itself. The third movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was a revelation, conjuring up an image of walking through a graveyard at night as the skeletons below ground spring to life, before dying away again into nothingness. The first two movements had progressed in very organic style, a classical feel to the opening movement followed by an increasingly incendiary second, so the change of style and pace was breathtaking. This was matched moving into the fourth movement, awaking from a nightmarish reverie into a full-bodied sound swirling towards a sweeping climax.

The third movement of the Mahler was also easily the highlight of the second half, swiftly followed by the first. After opening in genteel fashion, there was real menace in places, and a brilliance in the trumpet fanfare. The return of the earlier themes thus took on a beguiling quality, and the close of the first movement was beautifully poised. The second movement sees the leader of the orchestra quite literally more highly strung – playing a violin tuned a tone higher than normal. The first trio had a lovely lilt, while the second had moments of humour with the brass and woodwind. Overall it was extremely polished. There wasn’t much of a sense of Mahler’s vision of a tombstone with a carving of the dearly departed in the third movement, but this didn’t matter – it was achingly beautiful, and foreshadowed the Fifth Symphony in places with the depths of emotional expression. There was nothing child-like here.

From a singer’s perspective, the final movement is a thankless task; sing Mahler, but as a child. I confess I’ve yet to be satisfied with any rendition of this movement and I’m not convinced this is the fault of the singer. This evening Christina Landshamer was the soprano taking on this responsibility. Gilbert was sensitive in following her and not allowing the orchestra to overpower her, but truthfully the movement really came to life as the end approached and Landshamer allowed her voice to open up into a more adult sound. The final moments were awe-inspiring, the dying-away of the harp creating a hush that no one wanted to break.