Saturday 8 March 2008

LSO/Gergiev: Schoenberg and Mahler, 7 March 2008

Barbican Hall

Schoenberg - Chamber Symphony no.1, Op.9
Mahler - Symphony no.7

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

'Gergiev's Mahler', as the London Symphony Orchestra has dubbed its Mahler cycle, has not received the most positive reviews. This was the first concert in the series I have intended, and I must admit that I was rather fearing the worst. However, I have to say that I was favourably surprised. This may not have been 'great' Mahler in the sense of a performance whose memory will mark one indelibly for the rest of one's life, but it was for the most part very good, and certainly represented a welcome change from the highly proficent yet interchangeable, ultimately soulless performances that now seem to be put forward as any international orchestra's calling-card.

I really did fear the worst at the opening of Schoenberg's first chamber symphony. Balance is always a problem in this work: if I remember correctly, Karajan thought it impossible. The strings have to work very hard to avoid being swamped by the wind - the opposite can be true in the inferior, infrequently performed version for full orchestra - and here, not only were the horns far too loud, but the strings sounded thin indeed. However, with a few exceptions, this fault was soon rectified, and the ensemble improved greatly. I did not feel that this was an interpretation that had quite settled, but there were some very interesting touches. For instance, the second subject received a considerable slowing down, such as I have not heard before, but which worked very well. One might well do this in Brahms, so why not in the music of his greatest disciple? Furtwängler probably would have done. As the music hurtled towards its conclusion, it did not seem out of control, but quite rightly one felt that it would not take much for this to be the case. The final chord almost always sounds perfunctory, or at least it does to me. I cannot help feeling that Schoenberg should have marked it to be held, but he did not, and Gergiev is not to be blamed for that.

Again, the very opening of Mahler's Seventh Symphony did not seem to augur well. The brass sounded somewhat coarse, but in retrospect this puzzled, for it was not a general characteristic of the performance. Mahler might have written 'Nature roars!' but I do not think he meant it quite like this. The first movement was perhaps the weakest of the performance: there were occasional problems with balance, and not every twist and turn sounded persuasive. This should not be exaggerated, however.

More generally, one characteristic of which Gergiev made the most throughout was the march-like quality of much of Mahler's music, especially in the first Nachtmusik, but not only there. This put me in mind not so much of Shostakovich - although the cliché of a (sort of) Russian conductor making Mahler sound 'Russian' is always tempting - but of Mahler's own Second Symphony. The musical connections are stronger than ever I had realised before. (Gergiev will conduct the Second in April, although unfortunately I shall be unable to attend.) Another great strength was Gergiev's ability in depicting and expressing those astonishing transformations of vista - physical and metaphysical - that are Mahler's hallmark. The slickness of so many contemporary Mahler performances was but a distant memory; on this occasion, there was a true sense of the numinous, aided of course by the prowess of the LSO.

A number of solo contributions were very fine, especially guest leader Andrew Haveron and mandolin-player James Ellis in the second Nachtmusik, and Andrew Marriner in the final clarinet solo. The weirdness of Mahler's undermined and undermining serenade was splendidly captured. There were also all sorts of weird and wonderful contributions in the scherzo not least from the splendid percussion section.The movement's marking, Schattenhaft, really made sense on this occasion. The bizarre nature of Mahler's instrumental combinations was brought to the fore, not only, as one might have expected, recalling Berlioz, but also casting a shadow far into the modernist twentieth century. And the finale was terrifically exciting, at what seemed a faster pace than usual, but never too frantic. Daylight had finally arrived, in a duly dazzling and more than a little perturbing fashion. The mock-Bachian (in some sense Meistersinger-ish) counterpoint was unusually emphasised, which underlined the Seventh's kinship with Mahler's Fifth Symphony. I do not think one could reasonably fault the orchestra - nor the conductor - here at all, although it will be interesting to read the experience of other critics.

This was not the post-Adorno Mahler Seventh of Pierre Boulez, in which the contradictions of the musical material stand brazenly to the fire; nor was it the surprisingly winning Brahmsian Seventh of Daniel Barenboim. There was often something a little rough and ready to the orchestral sound, which rather surprised me from the LSO; this reading certainly lacked the timbral sophistication that Boulez achieved in an unforgettable performance with the same orchestra a few years ago. (It also, however, lacked the unfortunate split opening horn call of that performance.) Nevertheless, I felt this was a considered, if still-evolving interpretation, which is to be applauded. I am hoping to attend the performances in this cycle of the eighth and ninth symphonies, and am now very much looking forward to discovering these final instalments in 'Gergiev's Mahler'.