By JAMES R. OESTREICH
New Yorkers, blessed with easy access to Carnegie Hall, have long been able to keep at least fitful track of Europe’s finest symphony orchestras. But the Munich Philharmonic, which Valery Gergiev conducted on Monday and Wednesday evenings at Carnegie, retains an air of mystery, intermingled with that of the Romanian-born maestro Sergiu Celibidache, the ensemble’s reclusive music director from 1979 until his death in 1996.
Among Mr. Celibidache’s many eccentricities was a near-manic demand for rehearsal time, even in standard repertory, that essentially priced him out of the guest-conducting market, at least in the United States. He did not make his American debut until 1984, when he was 72 and led the orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music at Carnegie, and he brought the Munich Philharmonic to the hall in 1989.
A succession of directors followed in Munich: James Levine (1999-2004), Christian Thielemann (2004-11) and Lorin Maazel (2012-14). When Mr. Maazel canceled two Carnegie concerts in 2014 because of illness, Mr. Gergiev, who had already been chosen to become the orchestra’s next leader in 2015, picked up one of them. (Fabio Luisi conducted the other.)
If the orchestra achieved a consistent, substantial profile with any of those conductors, it wasn’t much apparent from New York. But you have to think that Mr. Levine, himself a demon for rehearsal, revived much of the Celibidache discipline, which has continued to serve the ensemble well through further transitions, and now into the tenure of Mr. Gergiev, who is — well, not always manic about rehearsal.
Valery Gergiev leading the Munich Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on Monday, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard on piano. Credit Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times
Alas, this week’s motley mix of repertory — Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist, and his “La Valse,” and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony on Monday; Debussy’s “Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faun” and the Fourth Symphonies of Schubert and Mahler on Wednesday — seemed calculated neither to make any definitive statement about the current condition of the orchestra nor to play to Mr. Gergiev’s Slavic strengths. No surprise, the orchestra seemed most in its element, and Mr. Gergiev least in his, in the Germanic Classical works.
Unhampered by the latest notions of historically correct forces, Mr. Gergiev everywhere deployed a large orchestra. There is certainly a case to be made for this in Beethoven’s “Eroica,” which is big in every way and revolutionary in its aspirations, and Mr. Gergiev elicited a lithe performance that proved compelling to the end, thanks to his animated tempo in the finale.
But the Schubert was roundly defeated by numbers: overweight, opaque, positively galumphing in the Menuetto. The orchestra played with athleticism and verve, but little subtlety; playful interchanges among the woodwinds were muted behind a heavy curtain of string sound. “Tragic” the work may be, if Schubert’s subtitle is to be believed, but lightly so. It is not Beethoven’s funeral march or Ravel’s apocalyptic waltz.
Mr. Gergiev and the orchestra reached a reasonable compromise in matters of French sound and style, though “La Valse” was somewhat overblown from the start. With Mr. Aimard exemplifying Gallic wit in the Ravel concerto, the orchestra delivered an unbuttoned reading, and it showed a fine restraint in Debussy’s “Faun.”
Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was the real payoff, with exceptional playing from the strings, and with the song of the finale gorgeously sung by Genia Kühmeier. The perennial logistical problem, how to get the soprano onstage unobtrusively, was not solved here. At the height of the third-movement peroration, a door opened, and Ms. Kühmeier made her radiant way from the wings to center stage, as if she were about to unleash some Wagnerian outburst.
Instead, she achieved just the right balance of tonal refinement and childlike simplicity to make this vision of heavenly life ethereal indeed.