LSO/Gergiev in New York – Mahler 9

Symphony No.10 – Adagio
Symphony No.9

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 27 February, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Valery Gergiev. Photograph: Marco BorggreveTo complete the three-concert Mahler series with the LSO in New York, Valery Gergiev conducted the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth Symphony and then the Ninth.

Mahler left the opening movement of the Tenth in an almost-complete state. According to Ernst Krenek, whom Alma Mahler had entrusted with preparing a score for performance in 1924, “only details were missing, such as transitions, dynamics and expression marks.” The program notes also give Alban Berg credit for correcting this edited score, and one assumes that this was the version performed by Gergiev (rather than the 1969 American Music Publishers score edited by Otto Jokl who added some of his own markings to those by Franz Schalk and Alexander Zemlinsky). Since Mahler always revised his compositions, we will never know how this movement would finally have turned out. In fact, we can be fairly certain that he would have made changes in the Ninth as well, had he lived to hear it performed. However, Mahler’s practice should not be taken as license by conductors to radically change the works’ tempo structure.

This was most noticeable and objectionable in the finale of the Ninth, marked Adagio. As reported on this site, Christoph Eschenbach recently stretched it to 32 minutes. Gergiev traversed it in just under 22 (for the whole symphony Eschenbach took 93 minutes to Gergiev’s 75). The initial section was within an acceptable range for an Adagio, accompanied, quite disturbingly, by a liberal dose of the conductor’s grunting. But already by bar eleven, when the bassoon interrupts the lush strings with a first short statement of the B theme, Gergiev did not sustain this slow tempo, moving it ahead even more when this subsidiary theme later is stated in full. Where things really turned bizarre though was in the section introduced by harps and clarinets playing oscillating thirds. Despite Mahler’s indication of “stets sehr gehalten” (always very held back) Gergiev doubled the tempo. Similarly at the very end, where the composer changes from Adagissimo to Langsam (slowly) he also increasing the pace twofold.

These are no mere quibbles about adherence to the composer’s markings, but indications of Gergiev’s whole approach to these works. There was no sense of repose, anywhere, starting at the beginning of the concert with the violas’ opening statement of the Tenth. Long notes were habitually cut short, sometimes by almost a beat, portamento omitted – and the subsequent re-statements of this passage got ever faster. The first movement of the Ninth also suffered from restlessness, its opening was completely devoid of any atmosphere or mystery, and the main theme lacked warmth. It wasn’t surprising then that the section marked “Wie ein schwerer Kondukt” (like a heavy dirge) was taken at an upbeat marching speed, requiring Gergiev to step on the brakes to come anywhere near the opening tempo when the recapitulation was reached.

Given this extroverted interpretation of Mahler, one expected great outbursts at least – during the famous pile-up of nine pitches in the Tenth, and at the catastrophic climaxes of the Ninth’s first movement – but these did not quite happen either. The second movement was structurally coherent in itself, but one could have wished for slightly more “Schwerfälligkeit” (clumsiness), more rusticity, in the Ländler. Where Gergiev was at his best was the muscular and driven third-movement Rondo-Burleske’, but even here he slightly miscalculated the tempo and ended up too fast to make an effective jump in speed to the final Presto. The trumpet solo in the movement’s slow episode was noteworthy for its delicacy and beauty. Leader Roman Simovic also distinguished himself in his various solos.

Valery Gergiev certainly has the ability to make orchestras play well, and he gets what he wants from them. However, there seemed to be a certain generic quality to this performance. One was left with the impression of having heard two romantic symphonies played on a very high level technically, but without a particular viewpoint. The notes were there, but any deeper understanding was not discernible.

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