Mahler
Symphony No.7

Orchestre National de Lyon
Alan Gilbert
On its last two visits to London (the Barbican in November 2001, and Proms 2002) the Lyon Orchestra left memorable impressions under its then Music Director David Robertson. He has now departed (to the Saint Louis Symphony) and in the 2004-5 season (2005 its centenary) without a chief conductor (Jun Märkl takes up the role this September) the Lyon Orchestra is taking new guests; one such being American Alan Gilbert in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony.
At this concert a willing group of musicians (save the trumpeter who completely missed an important entry in the first movement) did the bidding of a demonstrative, choreographic conductor whose clipped gestures lacked artistry and which did not always bring unanimity of response. Gilbert put a great deal of effort into his rather applied interpretation but negated most of the depth and darkness of the music. Dark-to-light and ambiguous this symphony may be, but it was rarely suggested here – there being little atmosphere or intimation of a programme, Mahler’s notation played-out as if all on a pleasant summer’s day. So after a pregnant-less introduction, but one with a nearly flawless tenor tuba solo, the main allegro romped along with little foundation and, at its still-centre, with little rapture. The march-like ‘Nachtmusik I’ had a good (forward-moving) tempo but little perspective, and the scherzo lacked spectral malevolence. ‘Nachtmusik II’ replaced romance with generalised sentiment, while the finale – with excellent timpani and trumpets (top C sharps not a problem) – was often mistimed, the pageant noisy, the music empty (Bernstein proved a long time ago that it isn’t).
The big problem was the similar pulse throughout the five movements – resulting in relentlessness and sameness – and the external application of rubato and fluctuations of pace; unless such things are ‘felt’ then one is all too aware of the manufacture rather than the inspiration. There were certainly some beguiling moments and the Lyon Orchestra boasts some fine players (not least principal violist Jean-Pascal Oswald, sitting with his colleagues on the outside-right, where the second violins really should be for this music), as it does a corporate willingness and is well modulated within itself. Gilbert, though, wasn’t always pristine with woodwind details, although he did draw some shapely phrases from the lean-sounding, honest strings, not without heart when required.
As an aside, it’s sad to report that although it is indeed an admirable ensemble, the Lyons Orchestra doesn’t sound particularly French (there are now very few orchestras that do retain geographical distinctiveness): none of those wonderful Paris Conservatoire-type timbres survive, alas. Ultimately this wasn’t a bad performance, it came and it went; if one wanted to, one could lay back and enjoy the surface – but that’s not what Mahler 7 is about.

 

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