Mahler – Symphony no.7
London Symphony OrchestraDaniele Gatti (conductor)
Daniele Gatti had not conducted the LSO since 1996, so it was more than time to put that right. The orchestra has not always recently had the happiest of times with Mahler: nothing to do with the orchestra itself, everything to do with largely uncomprehending conducting by Valery Gergiev. This concert, however, made it clear that the LSO remains a Mahler orchestra to be reckoned with. Gatti, whose Philharmonia Mahler Fifth in 2012 was the finest performance I have heard ‘live’ of a work that often proves problematical in performance, turned his hand with excellent results to its still more problematical sibling.
The first movement opened and in general – but not always – proceeded in deliberate fashion: not quite Klemperer, but with some of his doggedness, if not his plain-spokenness. If I say that its great span seemed longer than usual – and I suspect that it was – I do not mean to imply that such length was an impediment, far from it. But rather this was a reading whose weight entailed effort; it was quite rightly not a journey to be embarked upon, or indeed to be continued, at all lightly. For what it is worth, a performance that began at 7.35 finished at about 9.05. Sitting considerably farther forward than I usually do, indeed farther forward than is probably ideal, with only two rows between me and the stage, the orchestral effort was revealed to me in more than usually physical fashion. But as so often, there are compensations: for the losses in blend, there were gains in well-nigh overpowering immediacy – and, at times, sheer volume too. In a performance which set the scene for the rest of the symphony, Gatti did not take Daniel Barenboim’s path, which to my initial surprise, has turned out to work extraordinarily well both live and on CD, of transforming Mahler’s symphony into something more akin to Brahms, in other words of forcing the material to make sense. Instead, Gatti revelled in Mahler’s discontinuities; this was, one might say, whether consciously or otherwise, a veritably Adornian reading.
Lest I be misunderstood, I do not mean something merely chaotic; there has, in a sense, to be an overall line posited before discontinuity can assert itself in positive fashion. That there most certainly was, and that it most certainly did, the LSO’s virtuosity enabling it to follow him and to lead us. Moreover, the echoes of the Sixth Symphony resounded perhaps more strongly than ever I have previously heard: partly, I think, a result of the deliberate tempo, partly a result of the almost superhuman effort with which the strings dug into their instruments, and partly a result of a sure harmonic understanding which guided the discontinuous progress almost as a parody of the earlier work: a parody which wanted to match, which was doomed to fail, and which yet in that failure revealed something different.
The three inner movements were rightly taken as parts of a greater whole. Here the full garishness, horror, and sweetness of nightmares whose truth we never quite come to believe in were properly revealed, as much through orchestral colour as command of line and rubato. Wherever we were led, there was no doubt that this was the intention. Rhythms recalled old Vienna – or should that, at least in Mahler’s case, be new Vienna? – and the parade ground. Mahler’s scoring registered with the greatest sensitivity: I can rarely have heard the mandolin so clearly and with such Don Giovanni-like subversion, and the cowbells sounded miraculously from the distance with an atmospheric perfection I should have thought quite beyond the Barbican’s acoustic. If night fell with relative – and this is certainly only relative – normality at the opening of the first Nachtmusik, and all manner of deathly creatures haunted the scherzo, the disturbing charms of the second Nachtmusik beguiled, seduced, and, in context, unsettled at least as much as what had gone before. With this symphony, and in this performance, nothing was ever quite what it seemed – but consciously, or perhaps sub-consciously so.
The Meistersinger echoes of the finale tried, as they would, to wake us from the nightmare, but that nightmare or those nightmares perhaps proved all the more difficult to dispel on account of their ambiguities. When Bernstein, for instance, in his magnificent but very different final recording, lets loose the spirits of Hell, one feels that that is just what they are. Here, the daemons were unclear, and we were unclear who or what they were – which is perhaps why they never really left the stage at all. The end was properly inconclusive; Mahler’s symphony had been made strange once more.