If the National Symphony Orchestra succeeds in its goal of being considered a world-leading orchestra, its performances this week of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 may be remembered as a key milestone toward that achievement. Under the baton of music director Gianandrea Noseda, the NSO brilliantly navigated the hour-plus-long challenge of pulling out the sometimes excessive-sounding details of the work and making each of them count, in glorious balance against the main themes and moods of the five-movement work. Some of the past challenges of the orchestra – sketchy brass, lagging strings, underpowered motivation – were nowhere in evidence at the first performance of the Mahler Fifth on Thursday evening. Audiences in Tokyo will also hear the symphony on the NSO’s upcoming tour of Japan.

Gianandrea Noseda
© Steve Sherman

While the brass section as a whole was appropriately blaring through a great deal of the opening Funeral March and the tumultuous second movement, each move proceeded with clarity. Principal trumpet William Gerlach may have brought a clarion sound to the beginning of major passages – including the opening of the symphony – but his tone varied from blooming to edgy according to the emotional direction of the music.

The second movement was a riot of turbulent gestures, but the “great vehemence” of part of Mahler’s tempo instruction never got in the way of the details. The third movement Scherzo with its pastoral Ländler featured complete solidity from the entire horn section led by principal horn Abel Pereira against appropriately savory strings. The program notes aptly stated that the second of the two Trios in the movement presents the principal horn as “protagonist, evoking an untouched Alpine vastness”.

Noseda and the NSO provided the Adagietto with a beautiful shape without dragging. The melody has a way of turning sour in parallel drops of the melody and harmony – almost like a simultaneous going-out-of-tune, except it’s what’s written. But because Noseda had not allowed the proceedings to become too treacly, there was no sense of aimlessness. A harp figure accompanying the strings later in the movement did not come across as a solo but as more of an interstitial effect.

Noseda chose the Rondo finale to provide one of his signature supercharged tempi. In the hands of a lesser ensemble, that would threaten to make the movement’s fugal sections collapse in a heap, but the counterpoint read as perfectly clear out in the hall. The movement, and thus the entire symphony, has a quixotic ending starting with almost a joke of downward roller-coaster figure, but that leads to a positive ending that cleanses all the world-weariness before it. Noseda had the orchestra galloping toward the finish line to emphasize the effect.

Throughout the work, Noseda himself appeared to have relaxed just a bit into his role as the titular head of the NSO, with less of an Olympic-record vertical movement to his gestures and more confidence in sideways indications. One senses that Noseda’s greater confidence in his brass section in particular has led to this further ease of movement from the podium.

Noseda opened the concert with the two movements of Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. The dark tone of the opening movement was immediately evident. Principals shone in the second movement, primarily on clarinet and oboe. The balance between the strings and brass in the minor-key episodes between the melodic material in the second and final movement was as fine as the NSO has recently achieved.