LSO/Gergiev – Mahler 9

Symphony No.10 – Adagio
Symphony No.9

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 5 June, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The last photograph of Gustav MahlerIt was an evening of adagios. The final one was the Ninth Symphony’s last movement. It was hushed and memorable – a highlight and a culmination. It begins with muted leave-taking gradually increasing in ardour, rising to a head of throbbing intensity and then subsiding. Thereafter, the music moves slowly and deliberately, ever quieter … “The rest is silence…” (“Hamlet”).

The LSO strings were impeccable – and, quietly, very moving and with a repertoire of vibratos impassioned yet restrained – whether ardent or falling away, dispirited or stoically resigned, warm or bleak. This was an aria. The writing was simple; its themes were orchestrated richly, then sparingly, and handed soulfully from one body of strings to another in relay. The movement progressed in a single impetus of sustained continuity. Mahler was deeply moved, but also seriously uncomplicated. In this sense, the writing has operatic directness rather than symphonic subtlety. It suited Gergiev.

The rest of the evening was much more of a curate’s egg. The opening of the Ninth Symphony is a case in point. Musically, it is sophisticated. Broken phrases herald and complement a threnody. Phrases and melody must cohere in a forward pulse that has to be present and steady – utterly steady (listen to Boulez or Kondrashin). The music is greatly moving precisely because it combines hesitancy and stability. In Gergiev’s hands, it was a shambles. He highlighted this clumsiness himself some fifteen minutes into the movement. The themes returned, but capably handled, with sturdy pulse; Gergiev seems happier with coloured brass rather than succulent strings.

This respite was wedged into the movement between two of Gergiev’s dreadful, mechanised climaxes. They appear suddenly, without preparation, as brief explosions. They are the same every time, identical products of the one munition factory. Twice they were effective – in the two great dissonant explosions towards the end of the (left unfinished) Tenth Symphony’s opening Adagio.

Gergiev is not at his best with counterpoint, either; it is a hit and miss affair. Sometimes the different strands are vividly interwoven; at others the noise resembles thick knitting that cannot be unravelled. He has, further, no ear for the grotesque, irony or mischief. Thus, his delight in the distinctive sounds available from brass, woodwind and timpani is joyous, but his ear for their capacity to be raucous or laughter is minimal. As a result, much of Mahler’s mocking view of life passes Gergiev by. Nor does he cope adroitly with the intricacy of Mahler’s moods and their swift, fleeting changes – his cavalcade of emotions and carnival of humours, their gaudy floats lurching from one side of the concourse to the other.

As a result, Gergiev offers much of Mahler’s music as a lumpen, heaving mass – dark, doughy and shapeless. He has no simple, soaring melody to see him through – an aria to show him the way. Mahler needs conductors who see into his genius perceptively and who can discern a single-minded outlook in the turbulent variety that comprises his vast, sprawl.

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