Maazel’s Big Mahler Toodle-Oo: Grand, But a Tad Technical

In choosing Mahler’s Eighth Symphony for his final suite of concerts with the New York Philharmonic (June 24 through June 27), Lorin Maazel doubtless wanted to go out big—and there’s nothing bigger than the Eighth, which employed some one thousand musicians at its world premiere in 1910. But in doing so, he also chose, unwittingly, a work that could serve as a metaphor for his own conducting: flawless in technique, commanding in style, but only intermittently inspired.

Mahler’s Eighth is not necessarily a great piece, but like Britten’s War Requiem, which Mr. Maazel conducted at Avery Fisher Hall two weeks before, it is a piece that only a great composer could have written. Epic in length and mammoth in the number of forces required (the Philharmonic made do quite nicely with fewer than 500 players, choral singers and vocal soloists), the piece is less harmonically daring, less melodically memorable and more rhythmically predictable than the works for which the composer is most beloved. But it is still Mahler. The second part of the Eighth is a setting of the final scene from Part Two of Goethe’s Faust, the foundation stone of Romantic German literature; Mahler treasured that book, and his reverent musicalization certainly does it no harm.

The final moments, during which Mahler’s music paints a shimmering, overwhelming picture of Heaven in sound, were stunning in their impact and followed by a rousing ovation. Mr. Maazel can take the measure of a piece like this, and set it in front of the public with care. And the orchestra, unsurprisingly, sounded fabulous. The New York Choral Artists, the Dessoff Symphonic Choir and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus all acquitted themselves beautifully; among the eight soloists, all superb, the soprano Christine Brewer, the mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips, and the tenor Anthony Dean Griffey provided the most satisfying and sensitive contributions.

But from the start, Mr. Maazel’s reading lacked emotional engagement and visionary drive, giving a routine feel to an event that had been marketed as an unmissable experience. This problematic piece needs not only professional competence but also an evangelizing spirit—think of Bernstein, or of Simon Rattle—to let it really take flight.

Every conductor, even a great one, has his strengths and weaknesses, but Mr. Maazel’s seem oddly out of sync. He is a consummate musical technician whose control of the musical phrase often seems arbitrary; a committed liberal humanitarian whose reputation is that of an aloof loner; a man who has lavished money and attention on his own mini-festival in Virginia, but was never a notable presence in the life of the city from which he won, by his own admission, the “ultimate” job. If he seems to be a paragon of the overpaid superstar conductor, it not so much the amounts involved (Toscanini, at the height of the Great Depression, was also more than generously compensated) but frustration at a musician who too often seemed to think that allowing us into his presence was an achievement in itself.

Yet it is not always thus. Over the last seven years, there have been indisputably first-rate readings of music by Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Strauss, Varèse and, yes, Mahler. Mr. Maazel’s season-closing performance of the tragic Sixth Symphony, in 2005, was a tour de force, proving that there is a difference between an expressively “objective” performance and an emotionally unengaging one.

The same could be said of Mr. Maazel’s penultimate concerts (June 17 through June 20), which featured an admirably focused and flawlessly paced account of Sibelius’s Second Symphony. He is at his best with big, high-calorie, late-Romantic masterworks like this one, guiding these musical dreadnoughts into port with a firm and reliable hand. It all reminded me of the time when, soon after Mr. Maazel began his reign, I ran into a longtime member of the string section in a Duane Reade. “What’s it like working for Maazel?” “It’s wonderful—he just lets us do our jobs.”

It will be nice to have, in Alan Gilbert, a music director who will be a man about town and an enthusiastic advocate for contemporary music. But when it comes to letting New York’s finest work their magic, the bar has already been set pretty high.

Russell Platt is a composer and a music editor at The New Yorker. He can be reached at editorial@observer.com.