London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded January 2008 in Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins
Reviewed: June 2008
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0663
Duration: 53 minutes
Valery Gergiev’s Mahler concerts, with the London Symphony Orchestra, have divided opinions sharply. That of the First Symphony was no exception. In the “Financial Times”, Andrew Clark wrote that “the finale summed up the ills of Gergiev’s cycle – oases of exaggerated stillness rubbing shoulders with outbursts of congested noise, as if Shostakovich had influenced Mahler rather than the other way”. Conversely, Martin Kettle, in “The Guardian”, was enthusiastic, “If you like your Mahler visceral, spine-tingling and dangerous, this was for you.”
I was also at the concert – on 13 January (more specific information than LSO Live’s annotation!) – and was relatively unmoved. However, the release of any concert-performance as a recording allows one to return to it on different occasions and perhaps find qualities not apparent on that one-off hearing. But it also means that such a document needs to stand out – and there are many other recordings of Mahler 1. For this review I also listened to versions by Dmitri Mitropoulos (1940), Bruno Walter (1961), Leonard Bernstein (1987) and Gary Bertini (1991).
From Gergiev, the symphony starts promisingly. The seven-octave A on strings is atmospheric and is punctuated by characterful woodwind calls and trumpet fanfares. However, Gergiev takes the main part of the movement relatively swiftly and brings neither vernal freshness nor joyous energy to the music (although he does include the exposition repeat, unlike Mitropoulos and Walter). There is some marvellously expressive oboe and clarinet playing in the development section, but little tension as storm-clouds gather, and a lack of genuine exuberance as the movement draws to its conclusion. The climax – at 12’58”, immediately before rehearsal 26 in the score – is rather shrill, and from here onwards Gergiev pushes onward relentlessly, leaving himself no room to adhere to Mahler’s accelerando marking in the coda.
Gergiev’s opening tempo for the second movement scherzo is almost as broad as Bernstein’s but, unlike him, he gradually increases speed as the movement progresses. A lack of expressiveness in the strings and emphasis on trumpets and timpani suggests that Gergiev does not think of the music in terms of Austrian ländler peasant dances. Whatever the intention, the result is not particularly compelling. The start of the trio benefits from some lovely string playing, but Gergiev does not seem entirely at home and is further marred by overloud trumpets.
The third movement normally starts with one of Mahler’s most striking conceptions, a muted solo double bass intoning the children’s nursery tune “Bruder Martin” (the German variant of “Frère Jacques”). However, here the melody is played by all of the basses. This derives from the 1989 Critical Edition of the International Gustav Mahler Society, an amendment that a number of Mahler scholars consider spurious. Whatever the merits of the Edition, the provision of tutti double basses gives a feel that is notably different (and I think inferior) to that conjured by the solo instrument. Despite this, however, Gergiev goes on to provide an effective reading of the movement, marred only by an overloud trumpet (again!) in the Jewish-Slavic dance-music of the central section.
Perhaps surprisingly, it is in the Tchaikovskian finale where Gergiev is least convincing. The turbulent opening seems observed rather than visceral, and the song-like second subject is neither wistful nor passionate. As the symphony draws to a close, Gergiev summons a large volume of sound from the orchestra but only succeeds in making the conclusion sound brash rather than triumphant.
In summary, there is nothing particularly objectionable in Gergiev’s interpretation of the symphony, but it is difficult to find much that is noteworthy or moving. The four comparative recordings I chose are not necessarily the last word in performances of Mahler 1, but all of them illuminate aspects of the score in a more-revealing way than does the newcomer.
LSO Live’s recording quality is good, despite the difficulties of recording in the dry Barbican acoustic. The sound is close-up, but there is a sense of space around the instruments, and the recording sounds particularly impressive when heard via the 5.1 ‘surround sound’ layer.