Last Saturday was cold as balls. Nevertheless, we spent the entire day in the city, seeing “Fun Home” in the afternoon on a whim (it was superb…one of the best things I’ve seen since moving here) and ending the night at Lincoln Center listening to Semyon Bychkov leading the Philharmonic in Mahler’s Symphony no. 6.
Bychkov’s interpretation was interventionist to say the least. There were several needless tempo shifts in the first two movements (he put the scherzo second, thank [insert your deity here]), and the intensity seemed strangely lacking considering the music being performed. It’s funny to me that one would consciously choose to fuck around with the score like that, but in such half-measures! I was reminded of the legendary recording with Barbirolli, which could not be more unfaithful to the letter of the score while simultaneously capturing the spirit of the score in a way that, to my ears, has yet to be matched.
I mean, listen to that opening tempo. That is many, many things, exactly zero of which are Allegro energico, ma non troppo. It’s also the most captivating emotional take on the piece you’ll likely hear in your life and requires a mix of guts and arrogance that Barbirolli may have had in greater quantity than any conductor ever. Check out the 56:00 minute or so mark, when he builds the orchestra up for the movement proper by flagrantly adding a MASSIVE ritard out of nowhere. That goes against all logic and musical decency, but it also feels like a man working up every ounce of courage he has in his body to set off down a path that he already knows is going to destroy him, the Platonic ideal of the concept of struggle.
My point, and I do have one, is that if you’re going to intervene, don’t dip your toes. Dive off the deep end.
The performance Saturday night, to Bychkov and the band’s great credit, got better as it went. The Andante was really beautiful, moving along at the just the right pace and ringing majestically during the climax. The finale, though, was where it all came together. The intervening was gone, and in its place was a focused, intense, coherent plan of attack that let the music speak for itself. The band was killer, demonstrating a huge range of expression and the ability to kick it into stampede-mode at the drop of a hat. It was a performance worthy of Barbirolli without the questionable musical decision-making. By the time the movement was over, I was left with two competing thoughts: 1) where was that for the first 40 minutes? and 2) how will any of us sleep tonight after that?