Thursday 5 June 2008

LSO/Gergiev: Mahler, 5 June 2008

Barbican Hall

Mahler – Symphony no.10 in F sharp major: Adagio
Mahler – Symphony no.9

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

‘Gergiev’s Mahler’ has raised more than a few critical hackles. I had only attended one concert previous to this, that of the Seventh, and, given the general reception awarded to earlier performances, had found it rather better than expected. I should in no sense have described it as a great performance, but it signified a considered, if still evolving, interpretation. Would that I could say the same of these performances.

I shall admit that I am yet to be convinced of the validity of nowadays presenting the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony by itself. One can present just about any movement by itself if one wishes, but it does not necessarily make for satisfying listening. Now that we know at the very least Mahler’s conception for the rest of the symphony, it seems odd that many conductors who appear, for instance, to have no difficulty in conducting Mozart’s Requiem, in whatever completion, still baulk at performing this far more ‘completed’ work. That terrible cataclysmic dissonance towards the end of the Adagio needs to be resolved, but will only achieve resolution in the symphony’s final movement. It can, I suppose, be left hanging prophetically, but one might say the same of many symphonic first movements. Or it might be underplayed, so as to permit some sort of scaled-down resolution within the Adagio. If I were to be excessively charitable, I might possibly entertain the proposition that this is what happened in Gergiev’s performance; I fear, however, that I should be clutching at some very thin straws indeed. The climax never came, which was emphatically not the fault of the trumpeter, who performed impeccably. He utterly lacked support and the performance utterly lacked terror. In a generally disappointing Adagio-only performance a few years ago at the Proms, Pierre Boulez had at least managed that. At any rate, the Barbican performance left nothing to be resolved, so the problem vanished into thin air. Nor had the rest of this reading been stronger. The opening, Parsifalian viola line was assiduously micro-managed; one could see and hear this. Here and upon any of its reprises – including that on the violins towards the very end – it was laboriously shaped rather than sinuously sung. The balance was often very odd, especially when brass entries overpowered the strings: quite an achievement in so string-saturated a movement. This was less of a problem when the Hauptstimme fell to the horns but, in general, it did not even sound perverse, merely careless. There were a couple of incidents of positive note. Guest leader, Anton Barakhovsky’s solos were taken exquisitely, here and elsewhere. There was a telling febrile intensity, almost Webern-like, to the violins, as they prepared the way for the would-be chords of terror. That, however, was about it. I was about to say that we should have been thankful for Gergiev’s fastish tempo, in that the performance finished sooner than would usually have been the case, but I suspect that this made little difference in practice.

The Andante comodo of the Ninth opened hesitantly: not, it seemed, a hesitancy born of interpretative choice, but merely out of unsteadiness. Matters did not improve when Gergiev once again resorted to fussy and arbitrary moulding of lines. Balances were once again odd: whether by design or omission was difficult to tell. The movement was often extremely rushed; the climaxes in particular were never given time to tell. There was little sense of the movement’s architecture. And the brass sounded as if they were playing Shostakovich rather than Mahler. This was a characterisation I had resisted during the earlier performance of the Seventh, suspecting that it would lazily have relied upon the cliché of an almost-Russian conductor understanding too much through the prism of the Soviet composer. Here, however, it was almost impossible to overlook. Military marches made their presence felt in quite the ‘wrong’ sort of sense: merely cheap rather than ironically so. For me at least, Mahler cannot now fail to be understood in terms of his legacy to the Second Viennese School and, indeed, to its successors. This is what continues to inspire in his music, not occasional correspondences with the dead end of ‘socialist realism’. As Boulez remarked in 2000, 'Well, Shostakovich plays with clichés most of the time, I find. It's like olive oil, when you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third, pressing of Mahler.' On account of all of the above, what has often with good reason been accounted Mahler’s single greatest movement – I feel that I should attach ‘allegedly’ to the word comodo – felt tediously extended, again despite its sometimes frenetic pace.

The second movement started more promisingly, with the second violins really digging into their strings. Gergiev’s antiphonal division of the violins certainly paid off here. I initially thought there was a splendid sense of rhythm; this soon, however, became rigid in a fashion utterly inimical to Mahler and more akin to the worst of Toscanini’s Beethoven. There was something unpleasantly and indiscriminately aggressive to the entire movement, when a Ländler should surely be the most yielding of dances. Once again, I began to suspect a Shostakovich-inspired parody of Mahler.

The Rondo-Burleske came off better, perhaps because the general approach was more suited to this particular movement; what had seemed brazenly inappropriate was not necessarily so here. Even the shriekingly militaristic piccolo and percussion were not entirely out of place. Biting counterpoint was well projected, with a welcome note of sarcasm, and for perhaps the only time in the entire concert, there was a hint of new metaphysical vistas opening up during the middle section: a frustrating hint of what might have been. The harps sounded gorgeous and added suspense, as did shimmering violins. Even the helter-skelter rush at the end did not matter too much.

Then, however, we reverted to the bad old story. Indeed, the opening line exhibited precisely the same fussy micro-management as that of the Tenth had. The strings as a whole exhibited a good, full tone, securely underpinned by splendid double-basses, but then the principal horn entered, bringing with him the air of another planet, albeit that of DSCH rather than ASCH. The horn player in question was none other than David Pyatt, who has few if any rivals in the world today, whether technically or musically, so I can only assume that his brazen entry was a case of following orders. I have certainly never heard him play with such Russian-sounding vibrato – and yes, I tried to resist the cliché but this is genuinely what I heard. Some of the high violin lines might have been from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; there was not the slightest hint of standing only a stone’s throw, if that, from Berg. Gergiev’s direction was urgent in the wrong sense; in fact, it was simply hard-driven. He seemed to have forgotten that this was an Adagio; at times, it seemed barely to be an Andante. Had it not been – thankfully – for the strings’ vibrato, I might have wondered whether the spirit of Roger Norrington had taken possession of the conductor’s body. This was, I think, less a matter of tempo as such, although that played its part, as of a strange reluctance to yield. At any rate, I found myself saying under my breath: ‘Come back Leonard Bernstein. All, and I mean all, is forgiven!’ A couple of the climaxes were at last a little more yielding; yet by now, this merely sounded arbitrary, unmotivated by anything that had preceded them. The movement drifted on to its conclusion. Despite some beautifully hushed string playing, it was all too late; nothing could have salvaged this performance. Much of the audience appeared to differ, waiting for a considerable number of seconds in silence, albeit a silence punctuated by a generous number of coughs, as Gergiev’s hands remained frozen in mid-air. This seemed as arbitrary as the climaxes. As members of the audience stood to applaud, I resolved that it was high time to leave the hall, resorting to memories of Sir Simon Rattle’s great performance of this great work with the very same orchestra in 2000. I realised that, on the present occasion, not once, during a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and part of his Tenth, had I been moved. There had clearly been something very wrong either with the performance or with me.