LSO/Gergiev – Schoenberg & Mahler

Chamber Symphony No.1, Op.9
Symphony No.7

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 7 March, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Arnold SchoenbergThe fifteen players needed for the Schoenberg arrived in dribs and drabs. The resulting performance – with Valery Gergiev armed with a ‘proper’ baton and eschewing a podium – directed a high-octane performance that ran out of steam before Schoenberg ran out of notes. The opening pressed ahead rather shapelessly and took a while to settle and the musicians seemed a little uncertain; this music needs a conductor who can distinguish motifs rather than highlighting secondary material. The increase in energy to sustain what serves as a scherzo arrived late and while the slowing and the voluptuous tones for lyrical material could be argued as too backwards-looking for this progressive composer, it also displayed this performance’s attempt to make palatable a still-feared composer. But come the still-centre of the work, there was little repose and the all-important gathering of resources with which this compressed masterpiece concludes wasn’t quite clinched. A brave effort though.

This instalment of “Gergiev’s Mahler” was well-programmed; two very different symphonies (in length, scoring and agenda) composed more or less contemporaneously, Mahler completing his Seventh in 1905, Schoenberg his ‘dilution’ of the form the following year. Even so, Mahler symphonies (however wonderful they may be) now appear in concert programmes so often that their novelty ceased a while ago – they can now be a chore – and even the fascinating No.7 is losing its appeal (the LSO having played it in recent seasons under Boulez and Harding).

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)Mahler 7 is sometimes known as ‘Song of the Night’. This LSO/Gergiev performance could be termed ‘Blare of the Disco’. Whatever the merits of the conductor’s (now baton-less) direction (and there were some, including the employment of antiphonal violins) these were sunk by the blatant and unvarying fortissimos. Since refurbishment, although improving clarity and presence, the Barbican Hall acoustic has also become too bright, rendering metal percussion and brass as too immediate. High frequencies can become harsh – and did so with a vengeance here. Over 75 minutes, trumpets playing as loud as possibly and obtrusive cymbal clashes became exasperating as early as two-thirds through the first movement; over the 75 minutes this performance took, such an assault and such a functional response from the musicians was disturbing (in every sense). My ears were ringing for most of this badly miscalculated performance and for several minutes later (and I was sitting at the back of the Stalls).

As for the interpretation – it started well enough, the tenor horn solo (probably played on a tenor tuba) was safely negotiated, and the allegro enjoyed a good tempo, Gergiev being convincingly elastic in phrasing and changes of speed; there was though a lack of atmosphere and wonderment. The pushed-along tempo for the second movement (‘Nachtmusik I’) was fine, providing you agree this is one of Mahler’s least-inspired creations, and the succeeding scherzo was ideally nifty, hobgoblins dancing with glee and mischievous scurrying – but, as throughout the performance, the lack of really quiet playing was a reminder of limitations.

If only Gergiev had restricted the loudness and worked on variegation, for while ‘Nachtmusik II’ had its tender moments, the finale (trumpets here falling foul of the treacherous top notes – I sensed Mahler smirking in revenge!) was relentlessly driven and ended up cheap and vulgar (one’s thoughts turned to Leonard Bernstein’s brilliantly teasing way with this music, particularly in the dance-like passages, which seem to mean nothing to Gergiev).

Ultimately the banal and utilitarian aspects of this performance did Mahler no favours and undid the more-subtle moments … no wonder orchestral players have problems with deafness and now the audience is in similar danger! Furthermore, could the Barbican Centre’s management investigate the low-pitched hum that can sometimes be heard during concerts, and during this one was a constant presence. Maybe it’s the air-conditioning? Although I tend to notice this intrusion when a concert is being recorded, as this one was.

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