Friday, 11 July 2008

LSO/Gergiev: Mahler, 10 July 2008

St Paul's Cathedral

Mahler - Symphony no.8 in E-flat major

Victoria Yastrebova (soprano)
Ailish Tynan (soprano)
Liudmilla Dudinova (soprano)
Lili Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano)
Zlata Bulycheva (mezzo-soprano)
Sergey Semishkur (tenor)
Alexey Markov (baritone)
Evgeny Nitikin (bass)
The Choir of Eltham College
London Symphony Chorus
The Choral Arts Society of Washington

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

This was the culmination of 'Gergiev's Mahler' and also part of the City of London Festival. I attended two previous performances in the cycle: an intermittently impressive Seventh, and a catastrophic Ninth (plus the Adagio from the Tenth). I had little idea, then, what to expect, although I did not really expect this. Put simply, it would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, to reach any kind of judgement or even to gain any real impression concerning this performance, on account of the acoustic. St Paul's Cathedral is always likely to be a problematic venue for musical performances, although a performance I heard two or three years ago of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony (Hallé/Mark Elder) fared much better, not least since Elder appeared willing to use the acoustic to transform what would usually be silences into heavenly echoes. I am not sure that Valery Gergiev could have done much with Mahler's Eighth however: the problems appeared insuperable. Gergiev was never likely to have turned in a performance of the almost incredible marriage of tonal warmth and analytical clarity of Pierre Boulez last year, not to mention Boulez's awe-inspiring symphonic coherence. Yet Boulez had the Berlin Philharmonie; Gergiev had St Paul's. Most of the sound was swallowed up under the great dome; that which remained was mostly turned into a homogeneous mush. Sounds drifted into or - more often - out of focus. Everything sounded extremely distant. Oddly, the few sounds that fared well were those one might have expected to vanish from one's perceptions altogether: the violin solo, the outstanding boys' voices of the Choir of St Eltham's College, and even - just once - the mandolin.

My impression - and it can really be nothing more than this - was that otherwise, much of this most kaleidoscopic of works sounded laboured. Even though it was not an exceptionally slow reading by the clock (just about eighty minutes, I think), it sounded like it. Gergiev's tempo changes did not make much sense, sounding merely arbitrary. And the solo vocal contributions from an almost entirely Russian set of singers (perhaps a repeat from Gergiev's performance in St Petersburg?) sounded almost uniformly 'operatic' in nature, missing much of the point of Mahler's very singular approach in this symphony. Their vocalising sounded more akin to Verdi and Puccini than to Schubert or Wagner, let alone to Mahler himself. Perhaps they were just straining to be heard; after all, I heard Evgeni Nikitin give an excellent performance in Dallapiccola's Il prigioniero earlier this year. Lest one suspect that this shortcoming were a product of nationality, it was just as much the case with Ailish Tynan, with the exception that she added an absence - if one can add an absence - of vocal weight to the handicap of inappropriate style. As for Liudmilla Dudinova's hopelessly out-of-sync and out-of-tune Una Poenitentum, which reached us - eventually - from somewhere above, it was nothing short of a catastrophe. The choral contributions often sounded muted, although there was an impressive rise in temperature for the final peroration, Mahler's setting of some of the most celebrated words in the German language. Gergiev seemingly rose to the occasion here too, with the orchestral contribution for the last five minutes or so impressively stentorian and resolutely un-sentimental. This must all remain, however, hesitant and provisional. I can appreciate that the Barbican might not have been appropriate for this work, but it would have been better off performed in the Royal Albert Hall, or indeed in several other venues. Perhaps financial pressures played their part; perhaps some City subsidy was received. Whatever the story, the decision to perform this symphony at St Paul's proved disastrous.