London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded March 2008 in Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: July 2008
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0665
Duration: 72 minutes
Whatever the reaction to individual details in this performance taken from concert material on multi-track recording equipment and re-mixed with great skill, my overall impression is of consistency of approach. Bearing in mind that the whole is directed by a Moscow-born conductor I was surprised that in searching for a term that might give a general description of the interpretation, the word “Germanic” kept coming to mind. I then thought of other performances that were similarly Teutonic – firstly I recalled Jascha Horenstein (albeit he was born in Kiev) then Kurt Masur (German heritage this time). The overriding characteristic of all of these readings is solid impulse moving firmly from one theme to another – a truly symphonic approach that still gives room for inner expression.
There have been other notably straightforward Mahler performances – not all of which convince (for example, Giuseppe Sinopoli could be surprisingly inexpressive) but Valery Gergiev moves the music forward in a commendably unfussy manner while still finding room to shape melodies with affection. Masur did likewise in his excellent Leipzig Gewandhaus version (on Berlin Classics) but Gergiev seems to achieve greater clarity. His approach to the first movement is admirably strong although there may be those who would wish that the trumpet entries from around nine-and-a-half minutes to be more magically distant. The coda, however, has every instrument striking the ear clearly yet never overpoweringly.
The first of the two ‘Nachtmusik’ movements is beautifully detailed and, for once, the cowbells – so often relegated to the far distance – make their timbre felt. The march-like quality is somewhat underplayed however; Gergiev’s view does not encompass the very emphatic strict rhythm heard in Hermann Scherchen’s remarkable recording for Westminster recording. In the scherzo Gergiev illumines every detail – a valid approach but one that does not necessarily fully represent Mahler’s Schattenhaft (Shadowy) instruction. (Incidentally, this marking also appears in the first movement of the Ninth Symphony.) Lightness of touch informs the second ‘Nachtmusik’ movement and characteristically the nostalgic violin-solo episodes have none of the self-pitying features sometimes imposed on them. The themes in this movement are oft-repeated but the many changes of colour avoid any accusation of repetitiousness. Those fascinated by Mahler’s use of mandolin will find that this instrument is here presented very modestly.
The swiftness of Gergiev’s reading of the finale brought Masur’s convincingly straightforward approach to mind and on referring to that disc I find that timings are identical to the very second. This movement is a rare example in Mahler where a strictly ‘classical’ approach has great advantages. The music is so complex that it needs a firm hand to weld it together and sweep uncompromisingly forward. Horenstein also did this magnificently.
This is far from being a conventional Mahler performance. Many conductors bring soulful romanticism to the music, but not Gergiev who is powerful and down-to-earth. The recorded quality is very good. I have the impression that the finale attends just a little less to the instruments towards the rear of the orchestra (compare the opening timpani solo with the same instruments when they round-off the first movement) but above all the engineers have avoided the characteristics of dryness and lack of bass that sometimes inform recordings made in the Barbican Hall. I am particularly pleased that applause is not included.