Feature Review: Mahler 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 & 8 – Mariinsky Orchestra/Gergiev in New York

Written by: Lewis M. Smoley


Symphony No.6 [17 October 2010]

Symphony No.2 (Resurrection) [20 October 2010]

Symphony No.8 [21 October 2010]

Symphony No.5 [22 October 2010]

Symphony No.4 & Symphony No.1 [24 October 2010]

Anastasia Kalagina (soprano) & Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano)

Orfeón Pamplonés

The Choral Arts Society of Washington [Symphony 2]

Viktoria Yastrebova, Anastasia Kalagina & Liudmila Dudinova (sopranos: Magna Peccatrix, Una Poenitentium, Mater Gloriosa), Olga Savova & Zlata Bulycheva (mezzo-sopranos: Mulier Samaritana, Maria Aegyptiaca), Avgust Amonov (tenor: Doctor Marianus), Alexei Markov (baritone: Pater Ecstaticus) and Evgeny Nikitin (bass: Pater Profundus)
Orfeón Pamplonés

The Choral Arts Society of Washington

Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy [Symphony 8]

Mariinsky Orchestra

Valery Gergiev

Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Mahler was born 150 years ago this year. Continuing the celebrations Carnegie Hall presented the first part of a symphony cycle (excluding Das Lied von der Erde) with six of the symphonies (Valery Gergiev will conduct the remaining ones with the London Symphony Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall in February 2011).

For the concerts just gone, Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra accomplished them with virtually unstinting energy and commitment. One rarely sensed that the Mariinsky players were over-taxed by this daunting schedule (especially difficult in that their week also included performances in Washington, DC), notwithstanding some scrappy woodwind-playing during the last concert. No matter how indefatigably Gergiev drove his musicians, they rarely came up short, despite the rigors of some of the most difficult music in the late-romantic repertory.

One could say much the same about the vocal forces which performed two extremely exhausting works on successive nights. Gergiev, for the most part, set extremely fast tempos and demanding considerably high dynamic levels that put a severe strain on the performers. Brass was especially strong in the finales of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, yet seemed surprisingly restrained during the grandiose conclusion of the Eighth. Violins played with passion and resiliency and woodwinds impressed with characterful playing, particularly noteworthy during the opening movement of the First and the scherzando passages in Part II of the Eighth. That they did not succumb to strain imposed on them by hard-driven tempos and pumped up sonic levels is to their credit.

Generally, throughout all but the Fifth Symphony, one sensed that Gergiev was pressed for time. Allegros were hard-driven, particularly in the racy scherzo of the Sixth, the hurried finale of the Second and Part I of the Eighth, and the whirlwind pacing of the First Symphony’s Ländler movement. Generally, again with the exception of the Fifth, there was a pervasive sense of pressing forward, sometimes almost as if the musicians were lead by a whip rather than a baton! Excessive speed can rob music of its dramatic import and cause complex polyphonic passages to sound like a blur. Such was the case during the dense contrapuntal sections of Part I of the Eighth and the finale of the Second. Only if one favors a brisk allegro tempo for the opening movement of the Sixth (which is a matter of much controversy given Mahler’s directions not to exceed the speed limit) can Gergiev’s hard-driven main tempo be justified. Those who see in this movement the hero’s race to his own doom rationalize a speedy tempo.

Valery Gergiev. Photograph: Marco Borggreve

Not only were the allegro movements hurried but Mahler’s many tempo changes or adjustments were either handled abruptly (as in the first movement of the Fourth) or glossed over to achieve a sense of seamlessness that may not do the music justice (as in Part I of the Eighth). On the contrary, the heavenly subsidiary theme of the Second Symphony’s opening movement had a languorous ease, if occasionally subjected to affectation, and the slow movement of the Fourth was set at a comfortable pace that enabled the lyrical beauty of its principal theme to shine forth splendidly.

Apart from propulsive pacing, dynamic levels rarely attained pianissimo when called for, while fortissimos exceeded appropriate limits far too often. This was particularly disconcerting during the first movement of the Fourth, where a true pianissimo was not achieved, and consequently its lyricism was tainted both by too much volume and pressed tempos. A similar problem occurred during the first movement of the First Symphony, where the cellos came nowhere near the pianissimo Mahler wanted for the first appearance of the song theme, so important to provide the sense of gradual awakening during a summer morning as the music increasingly becomes strong and vigorous.

For the most part, Gergiev did not indulge in excessive affectation or revisionism, attending in his own way to Mahler’s myriad markings and directions. However, it bears noting that in one instance, he felt called upon to revise the score. This occurred during the finale of the Sixth Symphony. As is generally known, Mahler’s first version of the Sixth Symphony’s finale had three hammer blows, the last of which he later decided to omit. Some conductors consider this omission ill-conceived and, therefore, reinstate the third hammer blow. Gergiev goes a step further, however, by moving the position of the hammer blow as it appears in the score! Moreover, Mahler made it clear that he did not want all of the hammer blows to be struck with the same force, but that each succeeding stroke should be somewhat weaker that the preceding one. Gergiev rejected Mahler’s professed intensions and had each blow struck with the same force.

More disconcerting was Gergiev’s aggressively pressed reading of the Second’s finale, speeding through the grand climax toward the close that hardly any sense of spirituality emerged. Much the same concern applies to Part I of the Eighth, which seemed to gloss over the high spots in a concerted effort to reach an end. Although in Part II, after a rapid run through much of the music that precedes the entrance of Mater Gloriosa’s appearance, Gergiev held back for Doctor Marianus’s entrance, causing the forward motion of this music to flag. The orchestral interlude preceding ‘Chorus Mysticus’ was beautifully rendered, even though the tempo itself was again hurried.

The vocal groups performed admirably in the Second and Eighth Symphonies, undoubtedly the result of dedicated preparation. Although Olga Borodina is a strong, operatic mezzo-soprano, she had difficulty restraining her powerful voice enough to elicit the tenderness or yearning passion that ‘Urlicht’ (Symphony 2) demands. Soprano Anastasia Kalagina, a much lighter voice, rose above the chorus in the finale of the Second as Mahler directs. She was also impressive in the song-finale of the Fourth. In the Eighth the children sang with hands cupped around their mouths, possibly to help them project during complex choral polyphony, which they accomplished admirably.

I have purposely left the Fifth Symphony to last. Here, more than in any other of these performances, both conductor and orchestra achieved the full measure of the work. Gergiev’s general orientation toward uncomfortably swift tempos was completely absent here. Instead, he found just the right speeds for each of the five movements. The opening one was imbued with an extra measure of dramatic weight without ever sagging; his intense reading of the scherzo never felt unduly forced and lead to a truly Grand Chorale climax with brilliant-sounding brass; he captured the Viennese character of the middle movement, perfectly pacing a beautifully rendered Adagietto thanks to ravishing strings, and he delivered a spirited finale that concluded with a wild-ride spilling-over with excitement and enthusiasm.

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