|Inbal showed an impressive command of Mahler.|
The house was full at the Rudolfinum Friday night, and for good reason: Eliahu Inbal, one of the modern masters of Mahler, was leading the Czech Philharmonic in the composer’s Symphony No. 9. A monumental work capable of exhausting performers and audience alike, it proved to be riveting in the hands of Inbal, who drew a moving, polished performance from the orchestra.
Mahler’s Ninth is many things – an anguished cry from a man deeply aware of his own mortality, a musical extension of his just-completed vocal work Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), a battle between romanticism and the emerging avant-garde. Inbal served up all that and more in seamless fashion, in keeping with the sentiment he expressed when he recorded the composer’s complete symphonies with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra: “A conductor can only interpret Mahler’s music in a manner faithful to the score if he portrays it as torn asunder, always struggling within itself. Elements constantly war against one another in Mahler; where there is beauty there is also ugliness, and one must often be very careful to bring out this struggle with sufficient clarity.”
That was the consistent thread throughout nearly 90 minutes, with Inbal maintaining a constant tension through the soaring crescendos, dramatic explosions, vibrant horn and woodwind passages and sudden jolts of atonality. From the opening bars, his control of the material was superb – restrained, finely detailed and above all cohesive, no small matter in this sprawling work. Particularly impressive was his mastery of the contrasting light and dark tones, often juxtaposed in a manner that would be jarring in lesser hands.
By turns transcendent, anguished, intellectual and passionate, the music is full of surprises, like a brief interplay of the horns and woodwinds in the Rondo-Burlesque (third movement) that sounds exactly like a carousel at an amusement park. Some listeners find the Ninth a good example of the composer’s tendency for overindulgence, both in the music and instrumentation. Certainly the final movement seems that way, ready to end at half a dozen different points, then suddenly picking up to reprise another theme until they’re all exhausted and gently fade away. Otherwise, this reviewer found the steady stream of inventive ideas dazzling, in particular the many horn and woodwind combinations, which never sound the same twice. Those sections of the orchestra played beautifully, especially the French horns.
And Inbal is a treat to watch at work. He’s an expressive conductor, coaxing every tiny nuance out of the players with hand gestures often more pronounced than the sounds he elicits. With his professorial look and bearing, he sometimes seems like an instructor in front of a mischievous class, waving his pointer and wagging his finger.
But there was no need for admonishment on Friday, as the orchestra played very well. Inbal looked pleased with the performance, wearing a satisfied smile when it was over and inviting many individual players to stand for applause. With all the turmoil that’s rocked the organization this year, it was good to be reminded why, when everybody takes the stage and puts political infighting aside, the Czech Philharmonic is still the standard-bearer for the nation.