London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded November 2007 in the Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by: Peter Joelson
Reviewed: March 2008
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0661 [CD/SACD]
Duration: 77 minutes
Gustav Mahler wrote his Sixth Symphony between 1903 and 1906 and initially entitled it “The Tragic”. After a rehearsal and informal performance in Vienna the order of the middle movements was reversed by Mahler to Andante followed by Scherzo before the first performance in Essen in 1906, and it is in this form that Mahler conducted all subsequent performances.
Alma Mahler wrote much later: “Not one of his works came as directly from his innermost heart as this. We both wept that day. The music and what it foretold touched us deeply…”. Some feel too much can be read into Mahler’s supposed foretelling his future tragedies, and the result can be overwrought and melodramatic readings imbuing the music with unnecessary hysteria. Others feel that the symphony, particularly in the first movement, foretells coming conflicts in Europe . Whatever the implications are, this symphony is decidedly a product of and for the twentieth century.
The first movement’s exposition is marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo, opening with a march and including a soaring theme on violins meant to depict Alma . The march-theme recurs and cuts across other motifs, interrupting proceedings with menace. Valery Gergiev has a clear vision of the architecture of the whole symphony, the relationships between the movements, and it is apparent from the first bars that he is going to take the listener on an uninterrupted journey to the end of the work. The fast tempo for the opening march, certainly ‘energico’, will surprise some through its not being a tramp of despair, but the quick march of someone with determination. At the centre of all this activity is a passage of such stillness with parts for celesta and cowbells; Mahler tells us this is a portrait of deserted and remote mountains. In this performance the cowbells certainly are distant, and perhaps under characterised.
The Andante comes second, and under these circumstances follows quite naturally, and with some relief. The meditation in the mountains is extended here sometimes with sweetness and at other times with dark undertones. The scherzo repeats the relentless march, made even more so by adopting the minor mode, and brushes aside the peace of the slow movement. The trio with its curious halting dance theme on the oboe, exquisitely played here, retains an element of menace just below the surface.
The vast finale echoes what has gone before and changes the effects previously heard, especially as one theme cuts across another, the juxtapositions creating their own colours. Gergiev maintains the momentum he created at the start emphasising the determined and somewhat relentless and febrile journey through the symphony. Majestic and hopeful climaxes alternate with passages of despair. The ending is especially well done, as the march closes sooner than expected disappearing into a well of nothingness.
The series is advertised as “Gergiev’s Mahler” and he has something provocative to say in this performance. From the quick opening to the death of the work the listener is taken on an urgent journey; those who would like to tarry a while to soak up some of the details may not be in tune with Gergiev’s itinerary. Certainly, if my own experience is to go by, the listener will by the end be quite drained and exhausted in part by the pace and by the neurotic aspects of the work.
The London Symphony Orchestra plays magnificently, its virtuosity stunning. The recording, auditioned in this instance through the stereo SACD mix, is excellent, string sound (violins properly antiphonal) in particular benefiting from the higher resolution carrier. Only in the grandest climaxes does the sound thicken slightly, something those with multi-channel equipment may not notice. Otherwise, recording quality is transparent allowing the hearing of so many details clearly.
This first instalment in what promises to be a Mahler symphony cycle from Gergiev and the LSO augurs well for future releases. This is no run-of-the-mill Mahler, but plenty for the listener to think about.